Pope Benedict XVI met Wednesday with Cuban revolutionary icon Fidel Castro on the last day of his trip to bolster the Roman Catholic church’s ties with Cuba’s Communist leaders.
Shortly after celebrating mass before 500,000 people in the heart of Havana, Benedict met with the 85-year-old Castro for about 30 minutes, a Vatican spokesman said without giving details of their discussions.
The talk came as the pontiff has been gently but persistently prodding Communist authorities to embrace change.
“Cuba and the world need change, but this will occur only if each one is in a position to seek the truth and chooses the way of love, sowing reconciliation and fraternity,” the pontiff told the crowd including President Raul Castro.
“The truth is a desire of the human person, the search for which always supposes the exercise of authentic freedom,” he said, as hundreds of nuns cheered and chanted, and others waved a sea of Vatican yellow and Cuban blue, white and red flags.
Hailing the Cuban government’s granting of freedom of religion since 1998, Benedict, 84, said Cubans’ quests for truth generally should also respect “the inviolable dignity of the human person.”
His comment appeared to be an oblique reference to dissidents pressing for political opening in the Americas’ only one-party, Communist-ruled country. Dozens were rounded up and arrested during the pope’s visit, dissident sources said.
Human rights groups such as the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation have had their phone lines cut since Monday. The mobile phones of prominent activists were also unreachable, Amnesty International said.
About a half million Cubans, on foot but also packed onto state buses and trucks, and decked out in Vatican flag-yellow visors had thronged the square where Fidel Castro famously gave countless addresses to masses of supporters beneath the Jose Marti monument.
About 100 Catholic Cubans also marched from Havana’s Catholic cathedral to the mass venue, carrying a statue of their patroness Our Lady of Charity. It was a celebration of the fact that until 14 years ago, religious processions were banned in officially atheist Cuba for decades.
“I came to honor the Virgin of Charity as part of the celebration we are having for the pope’s visit,” said Ever Marin, 13, an eight-grader who was taking part in a procession for the first time.
Last week, Benedict said Marxism “no longer corresponds to reality,” and argued Cuba could be helped by looking at new models. But a dialogue about political and economic opening can be challenging here because the parties have starkly different ideas of what freedom and democracy mean.
Cuba’s leadership dreads the idea of joining the global economy, which it sees as corrupt and unjust. The top-down economy is subsidized and propped up by socialist Venezuela, a key regional ally.
The Cuban government also insists democracy already exists, and sees the papal visit as a way of showing the world it is tolerant of religious expression.
The pontiff’s calls for openness prompted Cuban Vice President Marino Murillo to rule out any political opening.
“In Cuba, there will be no political reforms,” Murillo, who is in charge of carrying out the economic reform program ordered over the past few years by President Raul Castro, told reporters on Tuesday.
Catholics account for some 10 percent of Cuba’s population of about 11 million. The church nonetheless has emerged as the most important non-state actor in Cuba, even mediating the release of prisoners.
Castro met with the late Pope John Paul II on two occasions, in Cuba in 1998 and at the Vatican in 1996.
After John Paul II’s 1998 visit, expectations ran high that the charismatic Polish pontiff might help spark change.
But more than a decade later, Cuba remains isolated and its state-run economy feeble, with most workers eking out a living on $20 a month.
The pope — leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics — is seeking to bolster the Church’s relationship with Cuban authorities, and to encourage new and renewed faith in the mainly secular island nation.