The crowd cheers before Pope Benedict XVI’s arrival to celebrate Mass in Antonio Maceo Revolution Square in Santiago de Cuba.The crowd cheers before Pope Benedict XVI’s arrival to celebrate Mass in Antonio Maceo Revolution Square in Santiago de Cuba.

SANTIAGO DE CUBA, CUBA – Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged the struggles of Cuba’s Catholics after half a century of communism as he celebrated Mass on his first day in the country.

The pope spoke on March 26 in Antonio Maceo Revolution Square, in Cuba’s second-largest city. He had arrived in the country a few hours earlier, after spending three days in Mexico (see story on facing page).

The Vatican had said the square would hold 200,000 people and it was full; several thousands also filled the streets leading to the square. Cuban President Raul Castro sat in the front row for Mass.

Tens of thousands of those at the Mass, which celebrated the feast of the Annunciation, wore white T-shirts welcoming the pope as the “pilgrim of charity”.

Before the pope arrived, the original statue of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, Cuba’s patroness, was driven atop a white truck through the cheering crowd. The statue then was enthroned near the papal altar.

In his homily, Pope Benedict recognised the “effort, daring and self-sacrifice” required of Cuban Catholics “in the concrete circumstances of your country and at this moment in history”. Though now more tolerant of religious practice than in earlier decades, the communist state continues to prevent the construction of new churches and strictly limits Catholic access to state media.

In a possible allusion to reports that the regime had prevented political opponents from attending the Mass, Pope Benedict extended his customary mention of those absent for reasons of age or health to include people who, “for other motives, are not able to join us”.

Before the pope arrived, a man in the crowd shouted an anti-communist slogan and was immediately taken away.

The pope painted a dire picture of a society without faith.

“Apart from God, we are alienated from ourselves and are hurled into the void. Obedience to God is what opens the doors of the world to the truth, to salvation,” the pope said.

The most specific advice in the pope’s homily was on the sanctity of the family as the “fundamental cell of society and an authentic domestic church”.

“You, dear husbands and wives, are called to be, especially for your children, a real and visible sign of the love of Christ for the Church,” he said. “Cuba needs the witness of your fidelity, your unity, your capacity to welcome human life, especially that of the weakest and most needy.”

According to the Centre for Demographic Studies at the University of Havana, Cuba’s divorce rate has almost tripled in four decades, rising from 22 divorces per 100 marriages in 1970 to 64 in 2009. The country’s parliament is scheduled later this year to consider the legal recognition of same-sex marriage.

Pope Benedict concluded his homily by repeating an earlier call for patience with the Catholic Church’s policy of dialogue and cooperation with the communist regime, a process initiated by Blessed John Paul II during his 1998 visit to Cuba.

“May we accept with patience and faith whatever opposition may come,” the pope said. “Armed with peace, forgiveness and understanding ... strive to build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity, and which better reflects the goodness of God.”

A girl receives Communion from the pope during Mass.A girl receives Communion from the pope during Mass.During his flight from Italy to Mexico, the pope had said that “Marxist ideology as it was conceived no longer responds to the truth today, we can no longer respond this way to construct a society”.

Cuba’s foreign minister had apparently responded by saying, “We are looking forward to an exchange of ideas.”

A 30-year-old woman in a baseball cap who identified herself only as Xichel said she and about 100 others travelled more than 100 km for the Mass.

“I came to see the pope because I am Catholic and he is the successor of Peter, who was the first pope,” she said, adding that she saw Blessed John Paul in Camaguey in 1998.

She expressed pride that a member of her parish was chosen to do the second reading. - CNS

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