Looking out over a crowd of thousands in Havana’s Revolution Square, a symbol of communism in Cuba dominated by a giant image of revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara, Pope Francis said people should come before ideology.
Sunday’s open-air Mass, which started just before 9 am (1300 GMT) and lasted 90 minutes, attracted large crowds. Whether police allowed political dissidents to join them on the square remained unclear.
Francis focused on the importance of eschewing careerism and selfishness in his homily, expounding on the need to serve the most vulnerable.
“Service is never ideological,” he said, “for we do not serve ideas, we serve people.”
Speaking in a country under communist rule since 1959, Francis said the Cuban people have “wounds, like every other people, yet know how to stand up with open arms.”
“They keep walking in hope, because it has a vocation for greatness,” he said.
Between the service’s several musical interludes, the pontiff hailed Cubans as a “holy and faithful people” with “a taste for partying, for friendship, for beautiful things,” and “a people which marches with songs of praise.”
Cuban President Raul Castro and Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner were both present. Francis stopped to greet them both, thanking Castro for supporting Colombian peace talks and shaking hands with his compatriot Fernandez de Kirchner.
Starting the second of his four-day visit to Cuba, the pontiff arrived by popemobile and spent time touring the square to greet the faithful. A large sign welcomed him as a “Missionary of Mercy.”
He administered communion to children – a first for a pope on a foreign trip, described by the Vatican as symbolizing “hope and growth” for the Cuban Catholic Church – and delivered the Sunday Angelus message.
It contained another appeal for Catholic mercy:
“We ask [the Virgin Mary] to teach us to stand beside the cross of our brothers and sisters who suffer. To learn to see Jesus […] in all our brothers and sisters who are hungry or thirsty, who are naked, or in prison or sick.”
Later Sunday, Francis was scheduled to visit Castro at his official residence, meet local priests and youth and have private talks with former leader Fidel Castro. He is slated to travel to the cities of Holguin and Santiago de Cuba on Monday and Tuesday.
The first-ever Latin American pontiff is the third pope to visit Cuba. John Paul II and Benedict XVI also celebrated Mass in Revolution Square and met with communist leadership in 1998 and 2012, respectively.
Those papal visits helped expand freedom of worship for Catholics in a country where atheism was the norm after the 1959 communist revolution. Presently, 60 per cent of Cubans are baptized, but only 2 per cent go to Mass regularly, the Cuban Bishops Conference said.
The pope, who has helped broker a historic restoration of diplomatic ties between Havana and Washington, is to travel on to the United States on Tuesday. He will stay there until September 27, making stops in Washington, New York and Philadelphia.