Thanks pontiff for brokering US-Cuba deal
VATICAN CITY — Raúl Castro has astounded the world by suggesting that he may return to the practice of his faith after his meeting with Pope Francis yesterday.
Pope Francis on Sunday met privately with the President of the Republic of Cuba. The meeting took place in the papal study of the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall.
According to an official statement issued by the Vatican, President Castro was welcomed by the Prefect of the Papal Household, Archbishop Gaenswein, and other top Vatican officials. Pope Francis then met privately with President Castro for just under one hour.
The deference and respect shown by his brother Fidel during Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Cuba was already striking. Pope Benedict XVI also made a successful visit to the island in 2012.
Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Cuba before his arrival in the United States in September.
The US government’s annual report on religious liberty around the world has noted a decline in the intensity of religious persecution in Cuba. Nevertheless, obstructions to the free exercise of religion remain, and some have been inclined to doubt the sincerity of the Cuban regime, desperate as it is for a reviving economic rapprochement with the United States.
The Vatican described the meeting as “cordial”. Fr. Federico Lombardi, Director of the Holy See Press Office, noted that President Castro “wished to thank the Holy Father for the active role he played in improving relations between Cuba and the United States of America.”
It has become clear that the activities of Pope Francis played a significant role in the substantial moves towards normalization of relations that have occurred between the United States and Cuba in the last year.
The visit of the Cuban head of state, his brother’s successor since he became unable through ill health to continue as full-time dictator, is a recognition of the pontiff’s contribution. No one, however, expected such dramatic statements of possible conversion as Raúl offered yesterday.
“As I’ve already told my council of advisers, I read all of the Pope’s speeches,” Castro said. “If the Pope continues to speak like this, sooner or later I will start praying again and I will return to the Catholic Church — and I’m not saying this in jest.”
According to the Vatican, President Castro also “presented to the Pope the sentiments of the Cuban people as they await and prepare for his upcoming visit to the island in September.”
Appearing alongside Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in Rome following his meeting with the pontiff, Castro said he too would be in attendance to see the pope speak during his September visit to Cuba.
“I promise that I will go to all of his Masses — and with satisfaction. I left the meeting this morning impressed, very impressed by his knowledge, his wisdom, modesty, and by all the virtues that we know he has,” Castro said.
In 1992, the last communist ruler of Russia, Michael Gorbachev, travelled to the Holy Land and visited many of the sites associated with the Lord’s life and ministry. When touring the traditional location of the feeding of the multitude, he remarked that he felt “like the last socialist, who has come to honor the first socialist, Jesus.”
Perhaps the (last?) Communist President of Cuba feels that a similar miraculous abundance may form part of his reward for yesterdays’ pilgrimage.
Raúl Castro remarked that he himself is a Jesuit “to a degree,” having been educated by the Society in his youth.
Following their private meeting, alumnus and pontiff exchanged gifts. President Castro gave the Pope a commemorative medal of the Cathedral of Havana and a painting of contemporary art. The painting depicted a migrant praying before a large cross, composed of the stacked wreckage of barges.
The Cuban artist, Kcho, who was present, told Pope Francis that he was “inspired by his great commitment in bringing the world’s attention the problems of migrants and refugees, beginning with his famous trip to Lampedusa.”
Pope Francis then gave President Castro a copy of his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, and a large medallion depicting St. Martin of Tours, patron saint of beggars, covering a poor man with his cloak. The Pope noted that he was particularly pleased to offer Castro this gift, “as it recalls not only the duty to help and protect the poor, but also actively to promote their dignity.”
Diane Montagna is Rome correspondent for Aleteia’s English edition.