Pope John Paul II, ending a spiritual journey to a dispirited land, summoned Cubans at home and Cubans in exile to “new paths” of reconciliation Sunday, and called this country’s bishops to the task of helping to lead the people there.
The Cuba they build, the pope said before boarding his flight back to Rome, should be a land of “greater freedom and pluralism.”
With his carefully chosen words, the ailing, 77-year-old pope put himself and his churchmen squarely in the middle of the four-decade-long Cuban showdown.
It was the climax of a difficult five-day pilgrimage during which the Roman Catholic pontiff had to balance criticism of Cuba’s communist system with the need to bolster and foster the Cuban church.
The leader of that system, President Fidel Castro, saw him off at Havana’s airport, declared Cuba had “nothing to hide from the world,” and congratulated the pope for visiting “what some choose to call communism’s last bulwark.”
“For every word you have said - even those I might disagree with - on behalf of all the Cuban people, Holy Father, I thank you!” Castro declared.
Earlier Sunday, Castro sat front and center for an open-air Mass in Havana’s vast Plaza of the Revolution, and heard a sharp attack by the pope on one of the Cuban leader’s own favorite targets, “neoliberal capitalism.”
The pontiff warned Cubans against embracing the “blind market forces” of global capitalism. “The wealthy grow ever wealthier, while the poor grow ever poorer,” John Paul declared to explosive applause.
But he also had pointed words for Castro, who had urged his people to pack the final Mass, repeating appeals for respect for freedom of conscience, for greater religious freedom and on behalf of political prisoners.
“The pope, in his heart and with his words of encouragement, embraces all who suffer injustice,” John Paul said to applause and waving flags and to silence from government officials.
The Vatican entourage said, meanwhile, that Cuban authorities had promised a quick response to its appeal to Castro earlier this week for release of about 200 prisoners.
The Mass unfolded in an epic setting of color, faith and history-in-the-making, in a vast square dominated by towering portraits of revolutionary martyr Ernesto “Che” Guevara and - temporarily - Jesus Christ.
The faithful, the curious and those simply heeding Castro’s call had set out from outlying towns by bus as early as 2 a.m. They were joined by pilgrims from around the world, including anti-Castro exiles.
By the time the pope arrived almost eight hours later, the crowd was approaching perhaps a quarter-million. And over the next three hours the melodious Cuban music, the prayers, the excitement - all built, under overcast skies, into sights and sounds unthinkable just a few years ago:
Of a dark-suited Castro mobbed by bishops in white, pumping his hand.
Of Cubans wildly chanting to a Bishop of Rome, his green chasuble flapping in the wind, “John Paul Two! The people are with you!”
Of a pope, or simply anyone not named Fidel, standing before Cuba’s masses, at the revolution’s most hallowed spot, and instructing them to take their future into their own hands.
It was enough to fill ordinary Cubans with awe.
“I never thought in 40 years that we would see this,” said Norka Dominguez, 62, clutching the hand of granddaughter Daisy.
It may take more years still to see just what it all will mean for Cuba.
Throughout his visit, in Masses in provincial cities, in talks to groups in Havana, the pope delivered a message, sometimes elliptically worded, of political freedom, of personal moral responsibility, of reconciliation between Cubans here and in exile - always through Christ and his church.
On Sunday, he appealed again for an end to Cuba’s isolation - at its own hands and by the U.S. trade embargo. Cuba “needs to open herself to the world and the world needs to draw close to Cuba,” he said at the open-air Mass.
For Cubans, he said, “it is necessary to follow a path of reconciliation, dialogue and fraternal acceptance.” His words met waves of applause from hundreds of thousands in the Havana plaza.
“This is the time to start out on the new paths.”
He elaborated later with the bishops.
Cubans who have left their country “must cooperate, peacefully and in a constructive and respectful way, in the nation’s progress, avoiding useless confrontations,” he said.