Pope Urges Cubans to Search for "Authentic" Freedom

This was Pope Benedict XVI's last, busy day in Cuba. He met with both Cuban President Raul Castro and his ailing brother Fidel.

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And this morning, he celebrated mass before thousands in Havana's Revolution Square.

In his sermon, the pontiff urged Cubans to search for what he called "authentic" freedom. And he warned against those who try to impose their "own truth" on others.

Cuba's Communist leaders didn't respond directly Wednesday. They'd already made clear Tuesday that they're planning no political reforms on the island.

"It compels us to believe, to keep the word in order to find the truth which redeems and has meaning. The truth is, in fact, the human beings' heart's desire. And to search for it always means to exercise real freedom," the Pope said.

That freedom started with the last papal visit 14 years ago that Benedict called, "a gentle breath of fresh air," after the church was sidelined by Communist Cuba. The country had previously aligned itself with Soviets and saw priests and nuns as elite counterrevolutionaries. Benedict described himself as a "pilgrim of charity," and Cubans largely welcomed him, including construction worker Tomás Quesada, who waited to see the pontiff.

"I'd like to thank him for coming to our country, giving us this magnificent blessing," Quesada said.

It's a key moment for Cuba. After creating the religious opening 14 years ago, the Vatican now hopes to create a political opening as well.

That change will likely take time. Still, the Church wants to stake its claim, and be seen as a catalyst for change in the region and on the island.

"They (the church) can be recognized as an interlocutor for the government," said Rafael Hernández, editor of a leading Cuban magazine. "If the government wants to release prisoners they want to talk to the Catholic Church rather than a foreign government, or to the European Union, or to the political opposition."

This was seen clearly in 2010 when Cuba's archbishop successfully negotiated freedom for more than 100 political prisoners. But at the same time, the Pope won't go so far as to actually meet with dissidents this time. He did however say that he would pray for "those who are deprived of freedom."

Anticipating such comments from the Pope, who also called Marxism unrealistic, President Raúl Castro struck back, criticizing the US embargo for creating "hunger and desperation."

But Cuba also wins with the Pope's visit.

"The government noticeably improves its image abroad," with the Pope's visit, "because here there's no space for the opposition. There's only one political party," said Cuban religious scholar Enrique López.

But there are also tensions between the Church and Cuba. Although Castro recently let the Church open its first Catholic seminary here since the revolution began, the Church still can't open schools or new churches. Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican's spokesperson, encouraged Cuba to let the Church be more involved in different aspects of life on the island, including education. He said that the "Church could give a hand and would be happy to help the country," Father Lombardi added. "What the Pope is saying is give us a chance."

The Church knows Cuba is fertile religious ground. It's Latin America's least Catholic country. But while few Cubans actually attend church, more than half of Cuba's 11 million people identify with Catholicism.

Step inside the home of Belén García. She is 59, Catholic and runs a nail salon from her home in downtown Havana. She has a variety of religious objects, and likes to show them off.

In addition to the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is Mexico's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre and Afro-Cuban statues also share space on García's shelf. It's a typical religious mix, with traditions inherited by African slaves brought to Cuba in the 1800s.

On the Pope's visit she said, "I think it's as much spiritual support as what he inspires in us to keep fighting for a better future."

But like the decades-long Communists-run project here, the process of religious change here in Cuba–and the Catholic Church's desire to solidify its role and presence here–will be lengthy and require a willingness from both the government and the Church to work side by side.

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    One of several government signs near Havana's Revolution Plaza, where Pope Benedict XVI held mass recently. (Photo: Monica Campbell)

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    Cuban religious scholar Enrique López in his Havana home and with his collection of religious objects. (Photo: Monica Campbell)