Pope urges 'a revolution of tenderness' for Cubans
Pope Francis ended his visit to Cuba yesterday with a Mass at the country's most revered shrine and a pep talk with families before flying north to Washington for the start of his American tour.
He called on Cubans to rediscover their Catholic heritage and live a "revolution of tenderness."
The words were highly evocative in a country whose 1959 socialist revolution installed an officially atheist government that was long hostile to religion.
Pope Francis said "Our revolution comes about through tenderness, through the joy which always becomes closeness and compassion, and leads us to get involved in, and to serve, the life of others."
Francis' address to families and symbolically potent flight to the United States underscore two of the big themes of his Cuba pilgrimage - encouraging reconciliation within families and between the U.S. and Cuba. He worked behind the scenes as mediator in 18 months of secret talks on re-establishing diplomatic relations between the two nations.
On his arrival in Cuba, the pope described the success of the negotiations as an example of peacemaking for the entire world.
Beyond its importance to the pope, the state of the family has been a long-time concern for the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba. Economic deprivation and successive waves of emigration have left many families broken and divided, and the church has focused intensely in recent years on trying to encourage traditional values like hard work, respect and fidelity that many Cubans worry have been lost over the years.
Those concerns about moral degradation are widespread among Cubans regardless of how religious they are.
While around 10pc regularly attend Mass, many more believe in religious icons like the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, whose sanctuary is important to both observant Catholics and followers of Afro-Cuban Santeria traditions.
The foot-tall wooden statue is kept in an ivory-coloured church with soaring red domes nestled in the shadow of the Sierra Maestra mountains in the small community of Cobre just outside Santiago. One corner of the church where Francis will celebrate Mass is dedicated to offerings left for the Virgin, including votives and thousands of handwritten notes.
Before flying to Santiago on Monday, Francis celebrated Mass in Holguin, a city of about 300,000 in eastern Cuba. In his homily, he pressed some of the subtle themes he has developed during this balancing act of a Cuban visit. He told the crowd of how Jesus picked a lowly and despised tax collector, Matthew, and instructed him without casting judgment to follow him. That act of mercy changed Matthew forever.
Francis told the Cubans that they, too, should allow themselves "to slowly overcome our preconceptions and our reluctance to think that others, much less ourselves, can change."
It was a theme Francis sketched out Sunday night in an off-the-cuff encounter with young people. He encouraged them to dream big about what their life could be like, and not be "boxed in" by ideologies or preconceptions about others.
"If you are different than me, why don't we talk?" Francis asked the crowd. "Why do we always throw rocks at that which separates us?"