Pope celebrates Mass in Havana’s Revolution Square

Pope Francis uses his Mass at Havana’s Revolution Square to call followers to serve the “most vulnerable” in a homily that Cuba’s government supporters and ardent critics could claim as their own.

HAVANA, CUBA (SEPTEMBER 20, 2015) (POOL) – Pope Francis celebrated Mass in Havana’s Revolution Square on Sunday (September 20), offering both spiritual and political messages for the tens of thousands who packed the plaza, the symbolic heart of the Cuban revolution.

The huge plaza is the site of where Cubans celebrate May Day beneath massive portraits of revolutionary leaders Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos built into the facades of state buildings.

To welcome the pope, who helped bring about the recent rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, a similarly giant poster of Jesus Christ was hung nearby.

Some pilgrims waited for hours in the tropical heat, eager to hear the first Latin American pope speak to them in Spanish, their common language.

The pope used his homily to call all followers into service and to protect the most vulnerable.

“People of flesh and blood, people with individual lives and stories, and with all their frailty: these are those whom Jesus asks us to protect, to care for, to serve. Because being a Christian entails serving the dignity of your brothers and sisters; to fight for our brothers’ and sisters’ dignity, and to live for the dignity of your brothers and sisters. That is why Christians are constantly called to set aside their own wishes and desires, their pursuit of power, and to look instead to those who are most vulnerable. There is a kind of “service” which truly “serves” others, 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”, in the name of “our people”. This service always leaves “your people” outside, and gives rise to a process of exclusion,” the pope said.

The pope’s homily carried messages that both Cuba’s committed government supporters and its most strident critics could claim as their own.

The government’s opponents may feel the pope was talking about Fidel and Raul Castro, the brothers who have been Cuba’s dominant figures since the 1959 revolution while their defenders could point to another passage as praise for a revolution that has provided Cubans with free health care and education.

“This caring for others out of love is not about being servile. Rather, it means putting our brothers and sisters at the centre. Service always looks to their faces, touches their flesh, senses their closeness and even, in some cases, “suffers” in trying to help. Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people,” he added.

The pope also had a message directly for Catholic followers on the island, calling on them to “serve.”

“God’s holy and faithful people in Cuba is a people with a taste for parties, for friendship, for beautiful things. It is a people which marches with songs of praise. It is a people which has its wounds, like every other people, yet knows how to stand up with open arms, to keep walking in hope, because it has a vocation of grandeur. That’s how they were planted by those who proceeded them. Today I ask you to care for this vocation of yours, to care for these gifts which God has given you, but above all I invite you to care for and be at the service, in a special way, of the frailty of your brothers and sisters. Do not neglect them for plans which can be seductive, but are unconcerned about the face of the person beside you. We know, we are witnesses of the incomparable power of the resurrection, which “everywhere calls forth the seeds of a new world [cf.Evangelii Gaudium, 276, 278]. Let us not forget the Good News we have heard today: the importance of a people, a nation, and the importance of individuals, which is always based on how they seek to serve their vulnerable brothers and sisters. Here we encounter one of the fruits of a true humanity. Because, my dear brothers and sisters, whoever does not live to serve, does not ‘serve’ to live,” Francis said.

Francisco was expected to visit retired leader Fidel Castro, 89, later on Sunday.

Arriving on Saturday (September 19), Francis exhorted Cuba and the United States to deepen their detente, and encouraged Cuba to grant more freedom to the Roman Catholic Church, which has re-emerged as a powerful force after suffering decades of repression.

Many Cubans appreciate the pope for his role in the secret talks that led to last December’s breakthrough with Washington, when Cuban President Raul Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama vowed to normalize relations and end more than half a century of animosity.

Francis will fly from Cuba to Washington on Tuesday (September 22) for meetings with Obama and addresses at the U.S. Congress and United Nations.

Cuba will welcome any papal condemnation of the U.S. economic embargo, which persists despite Obama’s policy change as only the U.S. Congress can lift it. The Republican leadership in Congress has defied Obama’s calls to do so.