Pope Francis concluded his first full day in Cuba with two highly inspiring encounters in Havana, the capital city of this country of 11 million people. In each of these encounters he abandoned his prepared text and spoke from the heart with extraordinary effect. He spoke first in the cathedral to priests, women and men religious and seminarians, and afterwards to thousands of young people in a park outside the Felix Varela centre, on the side of the cathedral.
I was present at both events and can recount here what I saw and experienced, but the reader will have to wait for the Vatican to publish the two spontaneous talks, which are worth reading.
The temperature was in the upper 90s this Sunday afternoon when the pope went to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and Saint Christopher, which the Jesuits began to build in 1748. They were expelled in 1767 (accused of conspiracy) and the building was only completed in 1787, the same time the diocese of Havana was established.
Humidity could not have been far from 100 percent inside the cathedral. Priests, nuns, friars and seminarians were sweating as they waited for the pope to arrive, and used the hymn sheets as fans. The Cuban bishops looked very uncomfortable in their episcopal garb, and we journalists were drenched with sweat. I have not experienced such humidity since 1998 when I reported on the beatification of Father Tansi by Pope John Paul II, in Onitsha, Nigeria.
Pope Francis arrived on time at the cathedral, after making a courtesy visit to the Cuban President, Raul Castro. The bells of the cathedral pealed with joy at his arrival, and the organist began playing, but the cheers and applause from the crowd outside and those inside the cathedral drowned out the music.
As he entered the main door, Francis could see on the left-hand side of the cathedral a large statue of John Paul II who came here as “a messenger of truth and hope” in January 1998. Francis came to Cuba as “a missionary of mercy,” and that would be one of the main topics of his off-the-cuff talk.
The Cardinal Archbishop of Havana, Ortega y Alamino, welcomed him with warm words, and told him, “the church that is in Cuba is a poor church, and the selfless testimony of our priests, our deacons and consecrated persons is admirable. Maybe it is poverty that contributes in a special way to solidarity and brotherhood between everyone.”
Sister Yaileny Ponce Torres, a Daughter of Charity, spoke after the cardinal and gave her moving testimony of working with mentally and physically disabled persons from age 11 to 71, in a project funded by the Ministry of Health, and how she discovered the face of God in these persons whom society discards.
After they spoke, the pope presided at the singing of vespers, and then walked to the microphone with his prepared speech in his hand. Then looking down the church, he told them he had been deeply moved both by what the cardinal and the sister had said, and so had decided not to read his text but speak from the heart. All present applauded enthusiastically, and then listened attentively, and laughed when he made humorous comments.
He began by recalling the word the cardinal had used, “poverty,” and went on to speak about how it is important that the church is “poor” on the one hand and “merciful” on the other, “because that is what Jesus is like.” He used much humor to make his point about poverty, but the reader will have to wait for the transcript. Speaking about mercy, he addressed the priests and told them, “Priests, please, never grow tired of pardoning.” He quoted St. Ambrose who said, “Where there is mercy, there is the spirit of Jesus. Where there is rigidity, it is only [the spirit] of his ministers.”
When he finished speaking, the crowd applauded enthusiastically, having greatly appreciated his words, which have greater effect because everyone knows that Pope Francis is both poor and merciful.
He then left the center, visited the Venerable Felix Varela. A Cuban priest and patriot, Varela, who was born in Havana in 1788, made a major contribution to education in this country, served as a priest in New York and died in Saint Augustine, Fla., in 1853. He is a model for Catholic teachers and young people, and also highly respected and esteemed by the Cuban government.
From the center, he walked a short distance to the nearby park where thousands of young Cubans had been waiting all afternoon for him, but just before he arrived it began to rain. A papal assistant came with a large white umbrella intent on protecting him from the warm rain, but Francis refused it and told the young people, “so many of you are unprotected from the rain, it would be a shame if I were to be protected when you are not!” They cheered loudly and waved flags.
One young man, Leonardo, spoke on behalf of the thousands of fellow young people present and told the pope about the difficulties they face growing up in Cuba today. “We are young people who take the public transport to study or to work, but the many difficulties we experience do not cause us to lose our joy of living.” He told Francis that there were believers and non-believers in the crowd before him, and ideology or religion tended to put separation between them, but, he said, “we are still all united by hope in a future of profound changes, where Cuba will be a home for all her children, both those within the country and those without.” “That is our dream,” he said.
By this time the pope was wet, but when an assistant brought his prepared text, Francis again put in on one side and spoke from the heart. He said he was struck by Leonardo’s use of the word “to dream.” He told the young people that a Latin American writer said we have two eyes: one of meat and one of glass. With the first we see what we see, but with the glass we dream. “We need to have the ability to dream. A young person who does not have this ability is closed in on himself or herself.” He urged them, “Open yourself, dream. Dream big. Dream that with you the world can be different. Dream that if you give the best of yourself, you’ll help to make the world a different place. But please dream, and dream big. And share your dream with others!”
He recalled that Leonardo has spoken about the differences that arise between them because of ideologies and religion and urged them not to get locked up in the differences but seek the things that unite and later address the differences. “Let’s dare to talk about what we have in common, and then we can talk about the differences.” He urged them to commit themselves to cultivate the culture of encounter.
He gave an example from Buenos Aires, where young people of very different views worked together to build new homes in a very poor neighborhood and the priest who had organized the project invited him, then bishop in the city, to come and see the project. When he visited the priest introduced the different young people and said this one is a communist, this other is a Jew and this is a Catholic, and so on. But, the pope observed, “they were all working for the common good, and that is social friendship.” Enmity divides, it destroys families, countries and leads to war, whereas “social friendship” looks to the common good. He urged them to work at building “social friendship.”
The pope was by now very wet, but he had one more word to share: hope. He told them, “Young people are the hope of a nation, they are its future.” He said hope knows how to suffer, to turn a project into reality. He asked them, are you are capable of sacrifice and giving hope? Are you capable of giving life, and building ‘social friendship’? Are you capable of engaging in the culture of encounter?” He expressed his confidence in their ability to do all this.
He then asked them to pray for him, and “if you are not a believer, then please wish me well. And I will pray for you!” He then gave them his blessing, and to a mighty cheer from the young people he walked to the popemobile – drenched!