Holguin – On Monday, Pope Francis celebrated Mass in the Eastern Cuba city of Holguin becoming the first Pope to visit the city where the Castro brothers and leaders of Cuba, Fidel and Raul, grew up.
He praised the “efforts and sacrifices” made by Cuba’s Catholic Church to work on the island amid a delicate period of transition, scarce resources and a history of tensions with the communist regime as he said a Mass for tens of thousands of people in sweltering heat.
The date was a personal special for the Pope, as September 21 was the day when the Argentine pope said he first felt a calling from God back in 1953. The 17-year-old man named Jorge Mario Bergoglio was heading to meet friends for a picnic marking the start of spring in the southern hemisphere when he felt an urge to enter a church he was passing in Buenos Aires.
“I can’t say what is was but it changed my life,” he told one biographer.
Holguin is the Pope’s second stop on an eight-day, six-city tour, and as the center of Cuban music the Mass was accompanied by lively Caribbean sounds.
“I know the efforts and the sacrifices being made by the Church in Cuba to bring Christ’s word and presence to all, even in the most remote areas,” he said at an open-air mass in the eastern city of Holguin.
In his first two days in Havana, the pope met with both Castro brothers. Both educated by Jesuits, repressed the Church after the 1959 revolution but relaxed restrictions from the 1990s and have now seen three pontiffs visit them in less than two decades.
The government of President Raul Castro, who attended the Holguin Mass, had hoped the 78-year-old Francis would explicitly condemn the still-intact U.S. economic embargo against Cuba before leaving on Tuesday for Washington.
He has not done so yet but on arrival on Saturday, he did urge the old Cold War foes to deepen their detente after this year’s restoration of relations, which the Vatican mediated.
Cuba already has received three popes, Pope John Paul visited in 1998 and Pope Benedict in 2012, but the Church nevertheless faces numerous struggles in Cuba.
Half the island’s priests are foreigners as it struggles to recruit clergy in a country where only 10 per cent of the population describes itself as Catholic. Also the Church relies heavily on donations from abroad to do its work in the deeply impoverished country. However a crowd of tens of thousands braved the tropical heat to pack the square where Francis gave mass in Holguin,
“Believer or non-believer, we believe in the pope!” said to Reuters Yami Mendez, a retired schoolteacher in Holguin who is not a Catholic but, like most Cubans, holds Francis in high esteem.