Javier Galeano, Associated Press
HAVANA — Pope Benedict XVI prayed for freedom and renewal "for the greater good of all Cubans" before the nation's patron saint Tuesday, but the island's communist leaders quickly rejected the Roman Catholic leader's appeal for political change after five decades of one-party rule.
The exchange came hours ahead of a 55-minute closed-door sit-down with President Raul Castro in which the pontiff proposed that Good Friday, when Catholics commemorate the death of Christ, be made a holiday.
There was no immediate response. The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said it was natural for the government to take time to consider such a request, which echoed a successful appeal by John Paul II in 1998 for Cuba to make Christmas a holiday.
"It's not that it changes reality in a revolutionary way, but it can be a sign of a positive step — as was the case of Christmas after John Paul's visit," Lombardi said.
Asked if the pope raised the matter of political prisoners or Alan Gross, a U.S. government subcontractor sentenced to 15 years in prison in Cuba on spy charges, Lombardi said "requests of a humanitarian nature" came up, but he had no information about whether individual cases were discussed.
Benedict spent nearly twice as long with Castro as he normally does with heads of state, which Lombardi attributed to the pontiff's desire to get to know the man.
There was no meeting with Fidel Castro on Benedict's second day in Cuba, though Lombardi would not rule out the possibility of an encounter before the pope departs Wednesday afternoon.
Days after dismissing the Marxist ideology on which the Cuban system is based, Benedict continued to gently press themes highly sensitive to Cuban government in his prayer and short speech at the sanctuary of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre near the eastern city of Santiago.
"I have entrusted to the Mother of God the future of your country, advancing along the ways of renewal and hope, for the greater good of all Cubans," the pope said. "I have also prayed to the Virgin for the needs of those who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, those who are separated from their loved ones or who are undergoing times of difficulty."
It wasn't long before a top official back in Havana responded.
"In Cuba, there will not be political reform," said Marino Murillo, Cuba's economic czar and a vice president.
The pope has kept his language lofty, his criticism vague and open to interpretation, but Murillo's comments left no room for doubt, and they were quickly picked up by pro-government blogs and on Twitter accounts.
Raul Castro has said that opening up Cuba's political system would inevitably spell doom for its socialist project since any alternative party would be dominated by enemies across the Florida Straits and beyond.
Alfredo Mesa, a Cuban-American National Foundation board member whose trip to Cuba was organized by the Miami Archdiocese, said the government's strong reaction would reinforce the pope's message and the need for change.
"I'd rather have them say this now than tomorrow," Mesa said.
During a quiet moment at the shrine of the Virgin of Charity, Benedict also prayed for more Cubans to embrace the faith in a country that is the least Catholic in Latin America. While most Cubans are nominally Catholic, fewer than 10 percent practice the faith.
The pontiff knelt before the crowned, wooden statue, which stood on a covered table shrouded in blue and white cloth. Helped by two bishops, the 84-year-old pontiff rose and approached the icon, lit a candle and stood in prayer as a choir sang hymns.
He called on all Cubans "to work for justice, to be servants of charity and to persevere in the midst of trials."