Pope Benedict XVI and the former Cuban leader Fidel Castro had a meeting today for the first time after the Pontiff saying mass in Havana, in which he demanded greater freedom in the country and denounced Communist “fanaticism”.
The meeting comes towards the end of the Pope’s three-day visit to the Communist-run island, during which the pontiff called for a bigger role for the Roman Catholic Church in Cuban society.
Fidel Castro announced late yesterday that he would happily meet with Pope Benedict XVI, saying he was asking for just a “few minutes of his very busy time” while the Pope is in Havana.
After the mass, Pope Benedict met for about half an hour with Fidel Castro, who is a Jesuit-educated altar boy-turned-revolutionary leader whose 1998 hosting of Pope John Paul II marked a turning point in the church’s relations with Cuba.
Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, said he was watching the two men and their conversation seemed very animated.
Pope Benedict XVI said Fidel Castro, who was raised a Catholic, asked about the reasons for the changes in the liturgy after the Second Vatican Council, about the role of the Pope and about the Pope’s thinking about the larger philosophical questions weighing on the minds of people today.
Father Lombardi told the Catholic News Service: “In the end, Commandante Fidel asked the pope to send him a few books dealing with the questions he had.”
He also revealed that Fidel Castro had told Pope Benedict he had followed his entire visit on television, and Castro had remarked they were about the same age, to which the Pope replied: “Yes, I’m old, but I can still carry out my duties.”
The Pope will celebrate his 85th birthday in April, and Fidel Castro will turn 86 in August.
Their meeting followed an unusually politicized homily from Pope Benedict XVI which was a not-so-subtle jab at Cuba’s leadership before the vast crowd.
But he also used plain language to urge an end to Cuba’s isolation, a reference to the 50-year U.S. economic embargo and the inability of 11 American presidents and brothers Fidel and Raul Castro to forge peace.
“Cuba and the world need change, but this will occur only if each one is in a position to seek the truth and chooses the way of love, sowing reconciliation and fraternity,” he said.