|Pope arrives in Cuba, calls for greater freedom, respect for rights|
Catholic News Service photo
Pope Benedict and President Raul Castro walk together after the pope's arrival in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, March 26. The pope was beginning a three-day visit on the communist island.
Catholic News Service
SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba — Pope Benedict began his three days in Cuba with a call for greater freedom and human rights, including increased liberty for the Catholic Church to proclaim the Gospel and serve the Cuban people.
After flying from Mexico, the pope was greeted at the airport in Santiago de Cuba March 26 by President Raul Castro and a formal salute of 21 cannon blasts.
At the arrival ceremony, the pope told the crowd, "I come to Cuba as a pilgrim of charity, to confirm my brothers and sisters in the faith and strengthen them in the hope which is born of the presence of God's love in our lives."
He said the visit in 1998 of Blessed John Paul II "left an indelible mark on the soul of all Cubans" and was "like a gentle breeze of fresh air, which gave new strength to the church in Cuba."
After the visit 14 years ago, the government began granting concessions for public processions, gave the church some access to media, eased the process for visas for foreign church personnel and helped restore some older church buildings.
Pope Benedict told Castro that Blessed John Paul's visit inaugurated "a new phase in the relationship in Cuba between church and state in a new spirit of cooperation and trust," but he also said, "many areas remain in which greater progress can and ought to be made, especially as regards the indispensable public contribution that religion is called to make in the life of society."
The Vatican has longed asked the Cuban government for the freedom to run schools, to build new churches, to provide spiritual assistance to prisoners and for church institutions, especially Catholic charities, to be given full legal recognition.
Speaking of the hopes and aspirations of island's people, the pope twice referred to "all Cubans, wherever they may be," a reference that included Cuban exiles and emigrants.
He said he carried in his heart "their sufferings and their joys, their concerns and their noblest desires, those of the young and the elderly, of adolescents and children, of the sick and workers, of prisoners and their families, and of the poor and those in need."
Pope Benedict acknowledged the economic difficulties experienced by the vast majority of Cubans and the fact that the situation has worsened because of the global financial crisis, which has had a negative impact on tourism, a key source of income and employment on the island.
At the papal visit press center in Havana March 26, Alexis Trujillo, Cuba's vice minister of tourism, said the papal visit did not significantly increase the number of foreign visitors to the island. At this moment, he said, the number of tourists is "a bit more" than usual.
In talking about the economic challenges facing Cuba, Pope Benedict did not mention the U.S. economic embargo, which has been in place since 1962 and which the Vatican repeatedly has criticized as a measure that harms the Cuban people.
Instead, the pope spoke about the moral and ethical failures that he believes caused the global crisis.
The crisis is "part of a profound spiritual and moral crisis which has left humanity devoid of values and defenseless before the ambition and selfishness of certain powers which take little account of the true good of individuals and families," he said.
The answer, the pope said, must be "an ethics which focuses on the human person and takes account of the most profound human needs, especially man's spiritual and religious dimension."
"The rebirth of society demands upright men and women of firm moral convictions, with noble and strong values who will not be manipulated by dubious interests and who are respectful of the unchanging and transcendent nature of the human person," the pope said.
Pope Benedict told Cuba's communist president and the nation's people that recovering their historic religious and cultural values was the key to building a future marked by freedom and prosperity.
The pope said he would kneel at the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, Cuba's patroness, to thank Mary "for her concern for all her Cuban children, and to ask her to guide the future of this beloved nation in the ways of justice, peace, freedom and reconciliation."
In his speech welcoming the pope, Castro railed against the United States and told the pope that his government shares many ideas with the Catholic Church, particularly regarding peace and the need for an economic system marked by solidarity.
He said the Cuban Constitution "guarantees full religious freedom for all citizens and, on that basis, the government keeps good relations with all religions and religious institutions in our country."
On the global economy, Castro said that "instead of solidarity, a systematic crisis is spreading, provoked by irrational consumption in affluent societies," where a few take all the wealth, depriving the "poor, the hungry, the untreated sick and the unemployed" of what they need.
Materialism, selfishness, the "corruption of politics and the lack of true democracy are evils in our time," he told the pope. "On these and other topics our ideas coincide with yours."
Castro told the pope that all Cubans, believers and nonbelievers alike, were celebrating the 400th anniversary of Our Lady of Charity and that the celebrations were source of unity for the country.
After meeting Castro, the pope went by popemobile from the airport to the residence of Archbishop Dionisio Garcia Ibanez of Santiago de Cuba. Crowds, mainly children and teens, lined the six-mile route and cheered, clapped and waved Vatican and Cuba flags.