Pope Francis met privately with former Cuban president Fidel Castro on Sunday, a meeting the Vatican described as “friendly and informal.”
The meeting at Castro’s Havana residence lasted about 30 minutes, said Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi, with the Pope and the communist leader exchanging books about religion. About 10 members of Castro’s family were present, according to the Vatican.
Castro, who is 89, rarely makes public appearances. He and Francis talked about the common problems of humanity, including environmental degradation, Lombardi said.
Castro’s son, Alex, photographed the meeting.
Pope Francis and Fidel Castro shake hands on Sunday afternoon.
Earlier on Sunday, the pope celebrated Mass before a crowd of thousands of Cubans, telling the communist country to “serve people, not ideas.”
“There is a kind of service which truly serves,” the Pope preached during his homily, “yet we need to be careful not to be tempted by another kind of service, a service which is self-serving.”
“There is a way to go about serving which is interested in only helping ‘my people,'” Francis continued, in remarks that some analysts interpreted as a criticism of Cuba’s communist government. “This service always leaves ‘your people’ outside, and gives rise to a process of exclusion.”
Three hours ahead of his arrival, the square was already packed with many thousands of people. The Cuban government was expecting 100,000 or more people to attend. The Red Cross set up stations to take care of medical needs that might arise from exhaustion.
Crowds cheered and waved flags as the Pope neared. Cardinal Sean O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington, were seated near Pope Francis, along with Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana. Turkson was a key adviser on the Pope’s encyclical on the environment. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Cuban President Raul Castro also attended the Mass.
Cubans waiting for the Pope in Havana’s Revolution Square could not remember ever having seen a picture of Jesus Christ there. And this one had towering stature, with words under the picture reading, “Come to me.”
The government has given the crowd a rare treat, opening up Wi-Fi signals. It has encouraged Cubans to send messages of welcome to the Pope.