HOLGUIN, Cuba (AP) – Pope Francis is marking a special personal anniversary by travelling to the Cuban city of Holguin, where he’ll emphasize another focus of his papacy, preaching the faith in places far from the international spotlight.
Francis is to celebrate Mass on Monday in the main plaza of Holguin, becoming the first pope to visit Cuba’s third-largest city. Later, he heads on to Santiago on Cuba’s eastern end before flying Tuesday to Washington for the U.S. leg of his two-nation trip to the former Cold War foes.
Monday is an important anniversary for the pope: On Sept, 21, 1953, when Jorge Mario Bergoglio was just 17, he went to confession at his parish church in the Flores neighborhood of Buenos Aires. During the course of his confession, he later wrote, he “realized God was waiting for me” and decided to become a priest.
Bergoglio wouldn’t enter the seminary for several more years, but Sept. 21 – the feast of St. Matthew – has remained a crucial reference point for the pope. His motto – Miserando atque eligendo (Having had mercy, he called him) – is inspired by the feast day.
Francis leaves Havana after meeting both Raul and Fidel Castro. The Vatican invited several Cuban dissidents to meet him but they said security agents detained them on their way to the Havana Cathedral to prevent them from attending the papal vespers service.
The Vatican described the 40-minute session with Fidel Castro at the former president’s home as “informal and familial,” with an exchange of books and discussion about issues facing humanity, including Francis’ recent encyclical on the environment and the global economic system.
Video of the encounter broadcast on Cuban state media showed the 89-year-old Castro chatting animatedly with Francis and shaking the hand of the pope, who was in his white vestments while Castro was sitting, wearing a white button-down shirt and Adidas sweat top.
The meeting brought together the leader who shaped Cuba and inspired millions of Latin Americans over the last half of the 20th century and the region’s first pope, whom many Cubans credit with opening a path to the future by mediating the warming of diplomatic relations between their country and the United States.
Francis then met for an hour with Fidel’s brother Raul, a declared atheist who, perhaps jokingly, has said he likes the pope so much he is thinking of returning to his Catholic roots. Francis thanked the 84-year-old leader for his pardon of thousands of petty criminals before his arrival. Castro presented the pontiff with a huge sculpture of the crucified Christ made of oars by the artist Kcho and a painting of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint.
But the head of the opposition group Ladies in White said 22 of 24 members of her group who wanted to attend Francis’ Mass earlier in the day were prevented from going by Cuban security agents. And two other well-known Cuban dissidents said agents detained them after the Vatican invited them to the pope’s vespers service at Havana’s cathedral.
Marta Beatriz Roque and Miriam Leiva said they received invitations from the office of the papal ambassador in Havana but said they were arrested as they tried to travel to the cathedral.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, confirmed that some dissidents were invited to events to receive a greeting from the pope but that he didn’t know why the greeting didn’t take place.
In his homily delivered under the gaze of a metal portrait of revolutionary fighter 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 each other 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. “Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people.”
It was a subtle poke at the communist system, which even the Vatican spokesman didn’t deny. “The pope doesn’t tend to make explicitly political speeches, but he has some general principles and everyone is free apply their different experiences of life on them,” the Rev. Federico Lombardi said.
Many Cubans complain about a system in which nearly every aspect of life is controlled by the government, from cultural institutions to block-level neighborhood watch committees. While the system has softened in recent years, Cubans can be excluded or lose benefits if they are perceived as being disloyal to the revolution.
Cubans are also increasingly concerned about growing inequality, in which those with access to foreign capital live lives of relative luxury while others can barely feed themselves, generating jealousy and division.
“Being a Christian entails promoting the dignity of our brothers and sisters, fighting for it, living for it,” Francis told the crowd.
At one point, Francis was approached by a man who grabbed onto the popemobile and appeared to be speaking emotionally to the pontiff, who touched him on his hand and head before he was pulled away by security agents. Video showed what appeared to be the same man throwing leaflets in the air, and backers of a Cuban dissident group said on Twitter he was a member of the opposition.
Winfield reported from Havana, Rodriguez from Holguin.
Associated Press writers E. Eduardo Castillo, Michael Weissenstein and Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana and Christine Armario in Holguin, Cuba, contributed to this report.