In Cuba, Francis urges continued thaw in relations with US

This story appears in the Francis in Cuba feature series. View the full series.
Pope Francis talks with Cuban President Raul Castro during an arrival ceremony at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana Sept. 19. (CNS/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis talks with Cuban President Raul Castro during an arrival ceremony at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana Sept. 19. (CNS/Paul Haring)

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis landed here Saturday on the first of a two-part 10-day trip that will see him follow on to the U.S. and immediately called on political leaders in both countries to continue their efforts to bring decades of isolation and antagonism to a close.

In remarks upon his arrival back in the Western hemisphere after a 12-hour flight from Rome, the first Latin American pontiff strongly urged the U.S. and Cuba to continue their thaw in relations, which both countries have attributed partly to his own leadership.

"For some months now, we have witnessed an event that fills us with hope," Francis told Cuban President Raul Castro during a speech at Havana's airport. "The process of normalizing relations between two peoples following years of estrangement."

"It is a sign of the victory of the culture of encounter and dialogue," he said.

"I urge political leaders to persevere on this path and to develop all its potentialities as a proof of the high service which they are called to carry out on behalf of the peace and well-being of their peoples, of all America, and as an example of reconciliation for the entire world," said the pontiff.

The pontiff will be visiting three Cuban cities through Tuesday morning before heading to the United States, where he will visit Washington, New York and Philadelphia. The combined visit in some ways resembles something like high-wire papal geopolitical diplomacy.

See the full itinerary, including times, for Pope Francis' Sept. 19-27 pastoral visits to Cuba and the US.

The political nature of the visits was made apparent immediately upon Francis' arrival Saturday, when Castro used his welcoming speech to compare the pontiff's emphases in his papacy to those of the Cuban revolution -- saying the pope has struggled "against the structural sources of poverty and inequality."

"It was to conquer such rights, among others, that the Cuban revolution was undertaken," the president told the pope, saying they wanted "to build a society with more justice and solidarity."

Castro also thanked Francis for his help in the reopening of relations with the U.S., but blasted the continuing economic embargo against the island and called for the return of the land used by the U.S. military in Guantanamo Bay.

"The blockade, which causes human damages and privations to the Cuban family, is cruel, immoral and illegal, and it should cease," the president said. "The territory usurped by the Guantanamo Naval Base should be returned to Cuba."

In his own remarks, Francis called Cuba a "key" nation with "extraordinary value" to link together both north and south, east and west.

Quoting 19th-century Cuban independence leader José Martí, Francis said Cuba's "natural vocation is to be a point of encounter for all peoples to join in friendship ... 'regardless of the languages of isthmuses and the barriers of oceans.'"

Francis' arrival Saturday was marked with cannon blasts at Havana's airport, along with the playing of the Cuban and Vatican anthems. The pope shook hands with Castro immediately upon leaving his plane and also met with a group of young people on the tarmac.

From the airport, the pope traveled in an open-air pope-mobile into downtown Havana, greeting well-wishers lining the streets.

The pontiff has no other scheduled engagements for Saturday evening. On Sunday, he will celebrate an open-air Mass in Havana's Revolution Square in the morning before meeting again with Castro privately at the presidential palace later that day.

The pope will then travel some 400 miles east on Monday for visits to the Cuban cities of Holguin and Santiago.

In a personal touch during Saturday's welcoming ceremony, Francis asked Castro to convey greetings to his brother Fidel, who stepped down as the leader of the country in 2008. The pope is expected to greet the former president personally at some point during the visit, but the Vatican has yet to confirm details.

In his own welcoming speech, President Castro also decried the continued existence of nuclear weapons, saying they "threaten the very survival of human beings and constitute an affront to the ethical and moral principles that should guide relations among nations."

Before Francis' arrival in the island nation, Cuban Catholic leaders expressed hope that the pontiff was creating a new historical moment with his help in pushing Cuba and the U.S. to reopen formal diplomatic ties.

"It's a different moment in history for Cuba," said Jesuit Fr. Juan Miguel Arregui, the provincial of the order's Cuban province and director of Havana's Loyola Center for Culture and Faith.

"It's a moment of expectations, of opening, of big hopes for change," said Arregui. "I think the pope is hoping to support that change."

Large crowds are expected for each of Francis' events in Cuba, amid reports that the Communist government was also offering people incentives to attend.

Francis' visit follows earlier visits by Popes John Paul II in 1998 and Benedict XVI in 2012. The current pope mentioned John Paul's visit in his arrival address, citing his predecessor's call that Cuba "open itself to the world, and ... the world open itself to Cuba."

For some Cuban Catholics, the pontiff's decision to combine his trip to the island nation with an immediate trip to the U.S. Francis' raises hopes that the pope might use the occasion to continue to build closer ties between the countries.

Magda Valdés, the executive secretary for the Jesuits' Cuban province, said she hopes the pope will "bring a message of peace and love, of tolerance, of reconciliation" from Cuba to the U.S.

"The Cuban family is divided, and a large part of it is over there," said Valdés.

"Countries need to learn how to live while recognizing each other's differences, and to respect their decisions," she said. "There has to be a transparent and respectful dialogue at all times, independently of whether or not we agree. I think that's the way forward of respect, love, peace."

Francis will find a Catholic community in Cuba quite different than that in the U.S.

Where the Catholic church in the U.S. has 457 bishops, Cuba has 17, according to official Vatican statistics. Where the U.S. has a total of 40,967 priests, Cuba has 365.

While the priest shortage is a problem for American parishes -- with an average of 1,753 Catholics for each priest -- Cuba's is much worse: averaging 18,562 Catholics per priest.

The visit to Holguin on Monday will be the first by a pontiff. Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi said Sept. 15 that was exactly why Francis chose to stop in the city and to celebrate an open-air Mass there. The pope, Lombardi said, wants to visit places that have not been reached by previous popes.

The Mass in Holguin will also be celebrated on a day with special meaning for Francis: the Feast day of St. Matthew. The pontiff considers Jesus' selection of tax collector Matthew as a disciple a sort of personal touch-point and chose his episcopal motto ("by having mercy and by choosing") based on Matthew's story.

In Santiago, Francis will visit a shrine dedicated to a Cuban apparition of Mary named Our Lady of El Cobre. He will also meet there with the country's bishops and pray vespers with them, opening that event by reciting two prayers: One written by himself; the other written and first used by Pope Benedict XVI Cuban visit.

[Joshua J. McElwee is an NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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