HAVANA — Minutes after arriving in Cuba, Pope Francis hailed “the process of normalizing relations between the two peoples of Cuba and the United States” that has taken place in recent months more than 50 years of estrangement as “a sign of the victory of the culture of encounter and dialogue” that “fills us with hope.”
He urged and encouraged the political leaders on both sides “to persevere on this path of peace and to develop all its potentialities as a proof of the high service that they are called to carry out in favor of peace and the wellbeing of their peoples, of all America, and as example of reconciliation to the entire world.”
Significantly too, in his speech that was transmitted live on Cuban TV, the pope publicly asked the country’s President Raul Castro “to transmit my sentiments of particular respect and consideration to your brother Fidel.” The leader of the Cuban revolution was probably following the welcome ceremony on TV and sources say Francis hopes to meet him in the coming days. Fidel, now 89, led the Cuban revolution in 1959 but handed over power to Raul in February 2008.
Cuba’s president warmly welcomed Francis with full state honors when he arrived at the international airport of the capital of this beautiful Caribbean island that Columbus once called “the loveliest land that eyes have ever seen,” after an 11 hours and 45 minutes flight from Rome. It was hot and humid, with a temperature of 91 degree Fahrenheit (33 Celsius), but that in no way dampened the state welcome, which included a 21 gun salute and military march past, as well as the playing of the Vatican and Cuban national anthems.
The small crowd of mainly young people—about 200 of them—cheered loudly and waved Cuban and Vatican flags when the first Latin American pope got off the plane. They consider him a hero for the crucial role he played in restoring diplomatic relations with the United States and opening vast new horizons for the country’s 11 million inhabitants (60 per cent of whom are Catholic), including the hope for an end to the embargo. Countless thousands of Cubans young and old showed their love for him by lining the route from the airport to the nunciature, waving flags and cheering, and a great crowd is expected to attend his mass in Plaza de la Revolucion tomorrow morning.
“The people and the Government of Cuba welcome you with profound affection, respect and hospitality,” President Raul Castro told him in a long speech of welcome. He said they feel “particularly honored” by his visit, and recalled his own “memorable meeting” with Francis in the Vatican last May. It will be recalled that at the end of that visit, Raul Castro said that if the pope continues as he is doing he—the Cuban leader—could start praying again and might even return to the Catholic Church.
He informed the pope that “we have followed closely your statements,” including the “Joy of the Gospel” and the encyclical on “the care of our common home,” and said these texts will be “references” for the UN summits on the Post-2015 Development Agenda and the Paris Conference on Climate Change. He also recalled the pope’s talks to the popular movements in Rome and at Santa Cruz, Bolivia,and his insistence on the need to practice solidarity and struggle together against poverty and inequality.
The Cuban leader told the pope that “preserving socialism is tantamount to securing independence, sovereignty, development and the well being of our nation” and added, “we are firmly determined to face every challenge and build a just and virtuous society with high ethical and spiritual values.”
He went onto express Cuba’s “appreciation for your support to the United States-Cuba dialogue” and said “the re-establishment of relations has been a first step towards normalization of the relationship between the two countries” which also demands “resolving problems and correcting injustices” as well as the ending of the “cruel, immoral and illegal blockade.”
He recalled that Cuba and the Holy See have enjoyed 80 years of “uninterrupted” diplomatic relations, and today these relations are “good.” He also affirmed that relations between the Government and the Catholic Church in Cuba “are developing in a gratifying atmosphere.”
He concluded by saying that he believed Pope Francis’ visit will be “a transcendental and enriching experience for our nation.”
The country’s bishops, led by Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana and the local Archbishop Garcia Ibanez, who is also president of the Bishops’ Conference, were at the airport to welcome Pope Francis. So too were five regional representatives of the diplomatic corps representing the ambassadors from many countries, including, for the first time, the U.S.
Francis thanked them all for their gracious presence, and extended his greeting to “all those, who for various reasons, I will not be able to meet”—a possible reference to the dissidents who wanted to see him, some of whom he had actually met in Rome since becoming pope. He also extended his greeting to “Cubans throughout the world,” a reference to the exiles who left their homeland for political and economic reasons.
Like Castro, the pope recalled that his visit coincided with the 80th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Cuba. He said “Providence has allowed me to come here today to this beloved nation following in the indelible footsteps…of my two predecessors,” that is, John Paul II, who came here in 1998, and Benedict XVI, who came in 2012. Their visits are remembered with “sentiments of gratitude and affection” by both the people and the authorities, he noted.
Today, Francis stated, “we renew these bonds of cooperation and friendship so that the Church can continue to support and encourage the Cuban people in its hopes and concerns, with the freedom, the means and the spaces needed to bring the proclamation of the announcement of the Kingdom (of God) to the existential peripheries of society.” Some interpreted this as a gentle hint to the Cuban government that more can be done to give more ‘spaces’ and ‘means’ to the church to carry out its ministry with full freedom.
The Argentine pope recalled that his visit also coincides with the centenary of the declaration the “Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre” as the Patroness of Cuba, by Benedict XV. The title is the one by which Mary, the Mother of Jesus is revered in this country at a pilgrimage shrine on the outskirts of Santiago—the country’s second largest city.
Francis recalled that it was the veterans of the War of Independence (from Spain), “moved by sentiments of faith and patriotism,” that asked the pope to declare her as “the Patroness of Cuba as a free and sovereign nation.”
He noted that “the growing devotion to her is a visible testimony of her presence in the soul of the Cuban people,” and said he would visit her shrine at Le Cobre “as a son and pilgrim” in the coming days, and ask her intercession for all “her Cuban children and for this beloved nation, so that it may move forward on the paths of justice, peace, liberty and reconciliation.”
Geographically, the pope noted, Cuba is “an archipelago, facing all directions, with an extraordinary value as ‘a key’ between north and south, east and west.” And so, he said, “its natural vocation is to be a point of encounter for all peoples to join in friendship.” Francis recalled that this was “the ardent desire” of John Paul II when he made his pressing appeal here on January 21, 1998: “May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself to the world, and may the world open itself to Cuba.”
With Francis visit, the third of a pope to this beautiful island in 17 years, that process of opening has already begun and is gathering speed, to the relief and joy of not only the people of Cuba but also of countless millions right across Latin America.