Pope Francis met with former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro on Sunday, according to Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi. Pope Francis met with Castro at his home after he delivered a mass at Havana’s Revolution Square drawing the largest crowd ever for a papal mass, estimated at 200,000 people. The Holy Father presented Castro with copies of his two encyclicals, Lombardi said, as well as two books written by an Italian priest and one by a Jesuit priest. Castro then gave Francis a book titled “Fidel and Religion.” Castro’s wife, children and grandchildren also were present in the meeting.
Francis also meet privately with Cuba’s President Raul Castro with whom he exchanged gifts with. The pope presented the Cuban leader with a Vatican-made mosaic. Raul Castro gave Francis “composition” built from the oars of migrant boats, a gift “inspired by Francis’ great attention to the plight of migrants,” Lombardi said. On Tuesday, he will fly to the U.S. and finish his historic 10-day tour of the two countries. Castro also addressed a group of young people at a cultural center in Havana. The pope urged the group to dream big and beware of rigid ideologies that stifle communication.
The world is being destroyed by war because we’re incapable of talking,” he said. “When there’s division, there’s death. We’re killing our ability to unify. We’re killing the ‘social friendship.’ I ask you, let’s be able to build social friendship.”
Francis becomes the third pope to visit the communist country in the last 17 years. Lombardi reported that he will not meet with dissidents. He did say that the pope wanted to “greet” them without having a “specific initiative” planned, he said, adding that there is “a desire to manifest attention towards everyone, also to the dissidents.” Despite pledging to not address the current thawing relations between the U.S. and Cuba, the pope took on the subject after landing in Cuba on Saturday.
For some months now, we have witnessed an event which fills us with hope: the process of normalizing relations between two peoples following years of estrangement,” Francis said on the tarmac of Jose Marti International Airport. “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.”
In an exclusive interview, Havana’s Archbishop, Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino, revealed to CNN that when the Pope and U.S. President Barack Obama met at the Vatican for the first time in March 2014, the Pope lobbied Obama to lift sanctions on Cuba. The Catholic Church was once an integral part of Cuban history, the Pope said, inspiring veterans of its war for independence and “sustaining the hope which preserves people’s dignity in the most difficult situations.”