Pope Benedict meets with Fidel Castro

In this picture made available by the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano Pope Benedict XVI meets with Fidel Castro in Havana, Wednesday, March 28, 2012. (AP Photo/Osservatore Romano)

March 28, 2012 8:27:51 PM PDT
Pope Benedict XVI wrapped up his historic visit to Cuba Wednesday, where delivered a message of peace and hope during a Mass in Havana's Revolution Plaza and met face to face with former Cuban president Fidel Castro.

Cuba was the pope's second stop on a tour that also took him to Mexico.

The popemobile -- one of the world's most famous vehicles -- drove through a city where most people can't even afford a car. But Cubans weren't cheering the mobile; they were saluting the white-haired man inside, who had already prayed for Cuba's political prisoners and made strong calls for Cuban government reform.

For some Cubans, Pope Benedict's two-day visit was transforming for them, and they hope for their nation, which has been under the wide thumb of communism for more than 50 years

"Whoa! Can you feel?" Herberto Gonzalez, a 21 year-old Cuban resident, told ABC7. "This is the first time in my life that I've seen the pope, especially in front of me, I can't even compare it!"

The Mass on Cuba's Revolution Square, beneath the metal stare of the nation's revolutionary heroes, was intended for Cuban residents, who are still under communist rule. The government gave them the day off. But there were Americans there, in tour groups and on their own, and some were from Chicago.

When Mary Sells was living in Orland Park and Lisle, she never thought she would ever see Cuba or a pope. On Wednesday, she saw both.

She and a friend from Florida lugged lawn chairs and had a near front-row seat as the popemobile rolled by.

"We take for granted that we're raised where we believe in something, anything and these people have not had that benefit," she said. "So maybe being able to share with them, that there may be something bigger than their lives, could transform them."

"It was a big opportunity to be here, to share with all the people of Cuba, all the Catholics of Cuba, be with the pope, pray for Cuba, pray for our Catholic Church, too," said Miguel Moreno, Joliet Diocese Hispanic Ministries.

Maryellen Thomas, from Holy Family Parish in southwest suburban Shorewood, traveled to Cuba on a Catholic tour from Miami.

"I wanted to see if suppression of a people can suppress faith, and I found out that the answer is absolutely not," Thomas said.

"We need to make peace between our two countries," said Elena Freyre. "Its' been too long, we're neighbors, we should be good neighbors."

The pope's politically-charged homily was unusually pointed at discrediting Cuba's continuing strong-arm rule.

Several hundred thousand of the faithful jammed Revolution Square for the open-air Mass under a cobalt sky. Some who appeared not-so-faithful came as well, treating the public event more like a picnic on a day the government had given them off.

"I know that there are some people here today because they need to be paid for their employment, and they've been told that they would receive payment if they came here but I don't think that's the majority," said Thomas. "I would say at least 75 percent of the people are here because of the love of their faith, and to see el Papa."

After Mass, the pontiff was driven to a private meeting requested by ex-president Fidel Castro, who was apparently too ill to go to the pope.

On Wednesday afternoon, Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi characterized the 30-minute meeting as casual and "very cordial," during which Castro asked the pope to send him books about the new Catholic liturgy. Castro's wife was at the meeting and they were joined later by two sons.

There was speculation the excommunicated Catholic was going to ask the pope for reconciliation, but that didn't happen, according to Lombardi.

The meeting began with some jokes about their ages. Castro is 85, Benedict reaches that milestone next month. "Yes, I'm old, but I can still do my job," Lombardi quoted the pope as saying.

Castro also talked with the pope about the beatification of Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II.

Before departing Havana, Pope Benedict reiterated the theme of his visit: Cuba needs to allow complete religious freedom and operate a far less restrictive government.