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Pope meets Fidel Castro after warning against ideology

Published:Monday | September 21, 2015 | 9:00 AM
Pope Francis arrives to celebrate Mass in Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba yesterday, where sculptures of revolutionary heroes Ernesto "Che" Guevara, left, and Camilo Cienfuegos decorate nearby government buildings.

HAVANA (AP):

Pope Francis and Fidel Castro, the man who transformed his country through decades of Communism, met yesterday at the revolutionary leader's home shortly after the Pope told tens of thousands of Cubans to focus their lives on service to others instead of ideology.

Papal spokesman Federico Lombardi said during the conversation, Fidel wanted to reflect on big issues and questions facing the world and humanity. Francis' recent encyclical on the environment and the global economic system was discussed. Lombardi said that in contrast to the 2012 visit of Benedict XVI, when Fidel peppered him with questions, the meeting with Francis was more of a conversation.

 

CROWD RESPONSE

 

Hours before the meeting, believers and non-believers alike streamed into the square before dawn for Francis' Mass, and they erupted in cheers when history's first Latin American pope spun through the crowd in his open-sided popemobile. Francis didn't disappoint, winding his way slowly through the masses and stopping to kiss children held up to him.

While most Cubans are nominally Catholic, fewer than 10 per cent practise their faith. The crowd was not as big as when St John Paul II became the first pope to visit the island in 1998, but it drew people who seemed to genuinely want to be there and listen to Francis' message.

In his homily delivered under the gaze of the plaza's iconic metal portrait of Che Guevara, Francis urged Cubans to care for one another out of a sense of service, not ideology. He encouraged them to refrain from judging one another by "looking to one side or the other to see what our neighbour is doing or not doing".

 

SERVICE TOOTHERS

 

"Whoever wishes to be great must serve others, not be served by others," he said, explaining that "service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people".

Francis exhorted the faithful to "learn to see Jesus in every person bent low on the path of life, in all our brothers and sisters who hunger or thirst, who are naked, or in prison, or sick".

Many Cubans complain about the rigidity of Cuba's system in which nearly every aspect of life is controlled by the government, from cultural institutions to block-level neighbourhood watch committees. Cubans can be excluded or lose benefits if they are perceived as being disloyal or unfaithful to the principles of the revolution.

In an important aside, Francis ended the Mass with an appeal for Colombia's government and rebels, who have been holding peace talks in Havana for more than two years, to put an end to South America's longest-running armed conflict.