Pope John Paul II met privately Thursday with Cuban President Fidel Castro after sternly rebuking Cubans for their high rate of abortion and divorce and attacked the Communist society their leader has spent a lifetime building.
In his first Cuban Mass, broadcast nationwide by state-run television, the pope criticized the country’s educational system, long the pride of Castro’s revolutionary regime, and appealed for the reopening of Roman Catholic schools to give parents a greater say in the education of their children.
Speaking before some 50,000 people on a sports field in the provincial capital of Santa Clara, the pontiff decried rampant promiscuity and abortion among the nation’s young people, tying these moral and social ills indirectly to the government’s atheistic doctrine.
The pope called on parents to stop sending their adolescent children away to boarding schools, a wide-spread practice the government strongly encourages as part of the Communist socialization process. The pope said the rural schools damage family life and contribute to moral decline among the nation’s youth by setting them adrift without parental supervision.
“These experiences place young people in situations which sadly result in the spread of promiscuous behavior, loss of ethical values, coarseness, premarital sexual relations at an early age and easy recourse to abortion,” said the pope. “All of this has a profoundly negative impact on young peo ple.”
The pope encouraged parents to take control of their children’s education, including its ethical and civic dimensions, and challenged the government to open religious schools, which were closed for almost 40 years.
“The path to overcoming these evils is Jesus Christ,” John Paul II said. “No ideology can replace his infinite wisdom and power. … There is a need to recover values at the level of the family and society.”
After the Mass, the pope flew back to Havana for his meeting with Castro. A battalion of photographers from around the world captured an image of president and pope, side by side, amicably waving from the steps of the Palace of the Revolution.
Neither spoke publicly after their private, 50-minute discussion, and details were not disclosed. Before his arrival, the pope had served notice he would press Castro for fewer restrictions on the church in Cuba.
In a separate meeting, Vatican officials said they had secured a promise from the Cuban government to consider freeing some Cuban prisoners.
Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said requests from Cuban prisoners to John Paul, asking him to press for an “act of clemency,” were presented by the Vatican’s secretary of state in talks with Cuban officials.
The Cuban government received the requests “with great attention” Navarro-Valls said.
After their meeting, Castro and the pope exchanged gifts in a brief ceremony. Then the Cuban leader ushered in seven relatives, including his brothers Raul and Ramon and sisters Angelita and Agustina, for a private 10-minute session with the pontiff.
At one point, the wife of Ramon Castro asked if she could embrace the pope, and they did.
Earlier, for the second straight day, John Paul used his visit to Cuba to urge religious believers to action, with a vigor that local church leaders cannot risk.
“Do not be afraid; open your families and schools to the values of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which are never a threat to any social project,” the pope said.
In recent years, the Cuban church has led a quiet campaign to reopen Catholic schools. The pope put his weight squarely behind that effort Thursday.
“Parents … should be able to choose for their children the pedagogical method, the ethical and civic content and the religious inspiration which will enable them to receive an integral education,” the pope said.
The crowd burst into applause at the end of the pontiff’s homily when he quoted Jose Marti, a hero of Cuba’s 19th-century fight for independence from Spain.
“In the process of building a future, with everyone and for everyone, the family, the school and the church must form an educational community in which the children of Cuba can grow in humanity,” he said.
“Don’t wait for everything to be given to you,” the pope added. “Assume your education mission, searching for and creating the means adequate for civil society. … Do not be afraid.”