Pope Benedict XVI ended his three-day visit to Cuba on Wednesday (March 28) with an appeal for more religious freedom for the Catholic Church, ahead of a highly anticipated meeting with the island's historic leader, Fidel Castro.
And while he stopped short of openly criticizing the island's communist regime during the trip, Benedict nonetheless said Cuba needed "change" and a "renewed and open society."
The pope celebrated Mass on Wednesday in Havana's Revolution Square for about 300,000 people, according to the Vatican's top spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
Cuban President Raul Castro was in attendance and joined in the crowd's applause when the pope entered the stage.
Pope Benedict XVI’s 3-day visit to Cuba began Monday, when President Raul Castro greeted the pontiff at the airport of Santiago de Cuba. The arrival was fairly quiet, but the evening Mass in Santiago’s plaza was attended by an estimated 200,000 Cubans. The pope's long-awaited visit attracted news coverage from around the world, mostly focusing in the pope’s message.
VATICAN CITY--Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Cuba on Monday (March 26), renewing the Catholic Church's pledge to "work tirelessly to better serve all Cubans" as the island strives to "renew and broaden its horizons."
Benedict landed in Santiago de Cuba, east of Havana, arriving from Mexico for the second leg of his weeklong visit to Latin America. President Raul Castro came to personally greet the German pope before Benedict was scheduled to celebrate Mass in the city's Revolution Square.
In his speech during the airport welcome ceremony, Benedict said he carried with him "the just aspirations and legitimate desires of all Cubans," including those of "prisoners and their families."
VATICAN CITY--Two weeks before Pope Benedict XVI was scheduled to touch down in Cuba, a small group of protesters occupied a church in central Havana, asking that a message with their requests be delivered directly to the pope.
Their action was swiftly condemned by church authorities as "illegitimate and irresponsible." The group remained in the church for two days, and only left Thursday (March 15) after being assured by a top church leader that they could return home without police interference.
The episode illustrates the challenges that Benedict will find in Cuba during a March 23-29 trip that will also include a stop in Mexico. But it also highlights the good relationship that the Catholic Church has built in recent years with the island's communist regime.
The trip will be the pontiff's second visit to Latin America, which is home to almost half of the world's Catholics. Benedict visited Brazil in 2007.
During his trip, the pope will meet political leaders from both countries and, according to the Vatican's top spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, he might even have a brief encounter with longtime Cuban leader Fidel Castro, though it is not on the official agenda yet.
WASHINGTON--Pope Benedict XVI will use his upcoming trip to Cuba to press for the release of Alan Gross, a Jewish man who has languished in a Cuban jail for more than two years, according to Gross' supporters.
That's the latest Ronald Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said he has heard through Vatican back channels.
In recent weeks, the council has circulated a petition asking the pope to intercede on Gross' behalf when he visits the island on March 26-28.
"He represents humanitarianism and cherished values, and hopefully his presence could help lead to Alan Gross' release," Halber said.
Earlier this month, Sojourners board member and former General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America, Wes Granberg-Michaelson, journeyed to Cuba with a delegation of religious leaders from the National Council of Churches.
Their visit culminated in a joint declaration celebrating signs of unity between the U.S. and Cuban churches. Sixteen representatives of U.S. National Council of Churches member communions were in Cuba November 28 through December 2 meeting with Cuban church and political leaders, including President Raúl Castro.
The delegation, which Cuban church leaders said was the highest ranking U.S. church group to visit the island in their memory, was led by the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, NCC general secretary. The joint statement by the churches declared that normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba would be in the best interest of both nations, and the leaders called for the resolution of three humanitarian issues “which cause unjustifiable human misunderstanding and suffering.” Foremost among the issues is the 53-year-old U.S. economic embargo of Cuba that dates back to the administration of President John F. Kennedy.
Read a series of dispatches from Granberg-Michaelson inside God's Politics.