SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba (Reuters) – Pope Benedict urged Cubans to build a better, “renewed and open society” yesterday and pressed the communist government to give the Catholic Church more freedoms to help the country in times of change.
After arriving from Mexico to start his first trip to Cuba, the pope celebrated an open-air Mass for tens of thousands of people in Revolution Square ringed by palm trees in this eastern city and he delivered a strong, clear message in his sermon as President Raul Castro listened from the front row. “I appeal to you to reinvigorate your faith, that you live in Christ and for Christ, and armed with peace, forgiveness and understanding, that you may strive to build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity, and which better reflects the goodness of God,” he said.
At the start of the Mass, a man shouting “Down with communism” was taken away by security officials. Others in the crowded booed the man for spoiling the atmosphere and shouted “Cuba, Cuba, Cuba”. Just three days after saying that communism no longer works in Cuba, the 84-year-old German pope took a softer stance as he began a three-day trip aimed at boosting the Church’s role on the island.
Arriving in Santiago de Cuba, he delivered a carefully worded, nuanced and balanced speech that was less direct in criticizing Cuba’s one-party system but included some thinly-veiled phrases addressing its human rights record. “I carry in my heart the just aspirations and legitimate desires of all Cubans, wherever they may be,” he said, including the “sufferings” of prisoners and their families, a reference likely to be well received by political dissidents on the island as well as Cuban American exiles in the United States.
Decades of hostility followed Cuba’s 1959 revolution but Church-state relations have improved steadily in recent years, helped by Pope John Paul II’s landmark visit in 1998. Benedict called that trip “a gentle breath of fresh air” but said that while great strides had been made, “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”.
Cuban bishops and the government are still at odds over issues such as Church use of the media and public education, which the Church considers are fundamental to its role as a moral force in society.