Thousands greet Pope in Cuba

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Pope Francis arrives to the Plaza of the Revolution to celebrate Mass in Holguin, Cuba, Monday, Sept. 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Pope Francis is spending much of the day concluding his visit to Cuba before flying to Washington to begin his first visit to the United States. The pope will celebrate Mass in eastern Cuba and visit a shrine to Cuba's patron saint. Sunday, after Mass in Havana, Francis met with President Raul Castro and his brother, Fidel, the former president who shaped Cuba for the last half of the 20th century.


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, as opposed to the 2012 visit of Benedict XVI, when Fidel peppered him with questions, the meeting with Francis was more of a conversation.

Lombardi said that out of respect for the family and the informality of the encounter, no photographs would be released. He said that the decision to not release any images had been taken during the discussions with Cuban authorities to set up the meeting.

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 percent practice 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.

"This is very important for us," said Mauren Gomez, 40, who travelled some 250 kilometers (155 miles) from Villa Clara to Havana by bus, spending her time reciting the Rosary.

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 neighbor is doing or not doing."

"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 "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 neighborhood watch committees. Cubans can be excluded or lose benefits if they are perceived as being disloyal or unfaithful to the principles of the revolution.

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