By Dan Wooding, Founder of the ASSIST News Service
HAVANA, CUBA (ANS – September 20, 2015) — Pope Francis has met Cuba’s former President, Fidel Castro, after celebrating mass in front of tens of thousands of people in Havana.
According to the BBC, the two men discussed world affairs and religion, in what the Vatican called an “informal and friendly” encounter.
Before the meeting, the 78-year-old Pope, gave a homily in which he urged Cubans to serve each other rather than ideology.
It is the first visit by the Pope to the Communist-ruled island, on a trip that will later take him to the United States.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi described the meeting between Pope Francis and Fidel Castro, which took place at the former Cuban leader’s home, as low-key.
They exchanged books: Pope Francis gave Mr. Castro three titles, including a book of sermons by Mr. Castro’s former teacher, while in return the Pope received Fidel and Religion, a collection of interviews with a Brazilian priest.
Earlier in the day, thousands streamed into Havana’s Revolution Square to hear the Pope,” said the BBC.
“Security services were seen arresting at least three people who were shouting and attempting to distribute flyers at the edge of the square as the Mass got under way.”
During his homily the Pope spoke of how “Christians are constantly called to set aside their own wishes and desires, their pursuit of power, and to look instead to those who are most vulnerable.”
He also warned against ideology, saying: “Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people.”
The BBC’s Will Grant, who was at the scene, said, “From my vantage point, it was hard to gauge exactly how many people filled the enormous Revolution Square in Havana, but their enthusiasm was clear to everyone watching.
“The Pope was greeted by thousands in good voice and high spirits, despite the suffocating Caribbean heat.
“It was a rare sight – the iconography of revolution such as the huge cast-iron Che Guevara mural juxtaposed against the images of religion, including a vast huge picture of Jesus Christ. Or Raul Castro embracing Pope Francis.
“Once again, it felt like evidence that times are changing on the communist island.”
He went on to say, “In terms of his homily, the Pope discussed ideas of brotherhood and unity but the more overt political message was aimed not at Cuba, but Colombia.
“He urged the Colombian government and the left-wing Farc rebel group to persevere with the talks being held in Havana, saying they could not allow “another failure on the path of peace and reconciliation.”
Raul Castro Attended
Cuba’s President Raul Castro, who is not a practicing Catholic, attended, as did Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, president of the Pope’s native Argentina.
“The Pope praised improved co-operation between the Cuban government and the Church on Saturday, but called for the Church in Cuba to have “the freedom and the means” to pursue its mission,” said the BBC.
“Both his predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, visited the island during their papacy.”
Pope Francis is due to fly to Washington on Tuesday. He has been credited with helping the recent thaw in diplomatic ties between Cuba and the US.
After his arrival on Saturday, he hailed improving ties between the two countries as “an example of reconciliation for the whole world”.
But he also urged both Cuba and the US to “persevere on the path” of detente.
Cuba frees prisoners
In a goodwill gesture ahead of the visit by Pope Francis, Cuba released more than 3,500 prisoners in a goodwill gesture ahead of a visit by Pope Francis.
The government in Havana says those freed include inmates due for conditional release next year, as well as a number of foreign prisoners.
Those found guilty of crimes against state security will not be eligible, seemingly ruling out several high-profile political prisoners.
Photo captions: 1) Pope Frances meets with Fidel Castro. 2) The Pope was cheered by crowds as he rode through the streets of Havana. 3) Pope Francis urged Cubans gathered in Revolution Square to “care for one another” 4) Norma and Dan Wooding visiting a Cuban Church during a trip to the island before Dan was told that he is banned from returning to Cuba.
About the writer: Dan Wooding, 74, is an award-winning author, broadcaster and journalist who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, and is now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for more than 52 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. Dan is the founder and international director of ASSIST (Aid to Special Saints in Strategic Times) and the ASSIST News Service (ANS). He is also the author of some 45 books. Dan, who has been to Cuba on three occasions, has been informed that he is now banned from ever returning to the island because of his reporting on the persecution of Cuban Christians.
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