“Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people,” Pope Francis stated this in his homily at Mass in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolucion on a hot and humid Sunday morning, Sept. 20, attended by hundreds of thousands of people, and the country’s President, Raul Castro.
In the years immediately after the 1959 revolution, Fidel Castro—whom the pope met after Mass—used to give lengthy speeches to cheering crowds in this plaza that holds some 600,000 people. Francis’ homily today paled by comparison. He spoke for less than 15 minutes, but his words were profound and incisive and addressed not only the present day Cuban reality but also looked to the future with a view to what could happen in this beautiful island once relations are fully normalized with the United States and the embargo is lifted.
Since Catholics count for 60 percent of the Cuban population of 11 million people, the way they develop as a community and live the Gospel can strongly influence the future development of this country and the process of reconciliation. Francis was well aware of this as he delivered his homily from a lectern in front of the altar, from which he could see on his lefthand side a massive portrait of his fellow Argentinean, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara hanging from the Ministry of the Interior building.
Wearing green vestments, he began by recalling the embarrassing question Jesus put to the disciples who were discussing which of them was the most important. Francis said this question—“Who is the most important?”—is one that surfaces many times during our lives and to which we must respond. Indeed, “the history of humanity has been marked by the answer we give to this question.”
He reminded the many thousands in the Plaza—that also included people from other countries including Argentina—and the vastly bigger audience that was following the Mass on live-television that Jesus provided an answer that opened “a new horizon” for the disciples then and for us today. He sets before us “the logic of love” that brings with it “a mindset, an approach to life, which is capable of being lived out by all, because it is meant for all”, and is “far from any kind of elitism,” even of a spiritual kind.
Jesus is “straightforward” in his reply to the question “Who is the most important?” Francis said. He told his disciples: “Whoever wishes to be the first among you must be the last of all, and the servant of all. Whoever wishes to be great must serve others, not be served by others.”
Francis recalled that the disciples “were arguing about who would have the highest place, who would be chosen for privileges, who would be above the common law, the general norm, in order to stand out in the quest for superiority over others. Who would climb the ladder most quickly to take the jobs which carry certain benefits.”
His words had a particular relevance to Cuban society where in past decades, and to an extent still today, the important ones were those who belonged to the Communist Party, and party membership—from which Catholics were excluded in the past—was the key to upward mobility.
The Jesuit pope said Jesus upsets this “logic” and this “mindset” by telling the disciples and those who would follow him down the centuries that “life is lived authentically in a concrete commitment to our neighbor,” in “the call to serve,” which “chiefly means caring for their vulnerability. Caring for the vulnerable of our families, our society, our people…with a love which takes shape in our actions and decisions. With a love which finds expression in whatever tasks we, as citizens, are called to perform.”
Again in words that touched the Cuban reality, Francis went onto distinguish between “the service which truly serves”—the service Christians are called to give—and “the ‘service’ which is ‘self-serving,’ which is interested in only helping ‘my people,’ ‘our people.’ This service always leaves ‘your people’ outside, and gives rise to a process of exclusion.”
He clarified that this “caring for others” to which the Christian is called, “is not about being servile,” on the contrary “it means putting our brothers and sisters at the center. Service always looks to their faces, touches their flesh, senses their closeness and even, in some cases, ‘suffers’ in trying to help.” He summed it up in this striking way: “Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people.”
Turning to the church in Cuba and its history, Francis said “God’s holy and faithful people in Cuba” is a people “with a taste for parties, for friendship, for beautiful things” but it is also “a people which has its wounds, like every other people, yet knows how to stand up with open arms, to keep walking in hope, because it has a vocation of grandeur,” which is “to care for and be at the service of the frailty of your brothers and sisters.”
He concluded by reminding the Catholic community that “the importance of a people, a nation, and the importance of individuals is always based on how they seek to serve their vulnerable brothers and sisters.” But his words also had relevance for all Cubans as they move into an important new moment in their country’s history.
The Cubans are known for their festive nature, but there was not much of this evident during the Mass, except when he arrived in his popemobile and drove among them before mass started. At that time too, a young man—a dissident—ran up to the popemobile and, as the security tried to pull him away, the pope blessed him while the young man shouted “Down with Fidel.” Something similar had happened when Benedict XVI celebrated mass in Santiago de Cuba.
Except for the joyful enthusiasm as he drove among them before the Mass, apart from the singing, the crowd remain remarkably quite and disciplined throughout the celebration. They had received instructions before Mass started that they were not to cheer, applaud or wave flags, and they obeyed.
They did applaud warmly at the end of Mass, however, when Francis spoke about Colombia, and expressed the hope that a peaceful solution can be found to the decades long bloody conflict between the government forces and the FARC (The Armed Revolutionary Force of Colombia), which he said has led to thousands of innocent deaths.
The Cuban government is hosting the peace negotiations, and Francis prayed that the Cuban and other peace efforts be sustained and “achieve definitive reconciliation,” and then he conclude with a passionate appeal to all sides: “Please, we do not have the right to allow ourselves yet another failure on this path of peace and reconciliation!”
After Mass, the pope greeted the presidents of Cuba and Argentina, and then visited Fidel Castro at his residence, and spent 30-40 minutes with the father of the Cuban revolution. The Vatican spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi, broke the news afterwards but announced that there are no photos of this much awaited encounter. He said the pope gave the Cuban leader a number of books, including one on his former Jesuit teacher, and his own two publications: “The Joy of the Gospel” and the encyclical “Laudato Si.’” Fidel, for his part, gave the pope a copy of his dialogue on religious questions with the Brazilian friar, Frei Betto, with a personal dedication.
Fidel’s wife, children and grandchildren were present at the historic encounter, as were some Vatican officials accompanying the pope. Lombardi said he may be able to give more information later in the day.