Ismael Francisco, Associated Press
HAVANA — Pope Benedict XVI demanded more freedom for the Catholic Church in communist-run Cuba and preached against "fanaticism" in an unusually political sermon Wednesday before hundreds of thousands at Revolution Plaza, with President Raul Castro in the front row.
Before the pope's departure, he met with the president's brother, revolutionary leader Fidel Castro. Castro grilled the pontiff on changes in church liturgy and his role as spiritual leader of the world's Catholics, a Vatican spokesman said.
Benedict's homily was a not-so-subtle jab at the island's leadership before a vast crowd of Cubans, both in the sprawling plaza and watching on television. But he also clearly urged an end to Cuba's isolation, a reference to the 50-year U.S. economic embargo and the inability of 11 American presidents and brothers Fidel and Raul Castro to forge peace.
"Cuba and the world need change, but this will occur only if each one is in a position to seek the truth and chooses the way of love, sowing reconciliation and fraternity," Benedict said. The remark built upon the famed call of his predecessor, John Paul II, who said in his groundbreaking 1998 visit that Cuba should "open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba."
With the country's leadership listening from front-row seats, Benedict referred to the biblical account of how youths persecuted by the Babylonian king "preferred to face death by fire rather than betray their conscience and their faith."
He said all people share a desire for "authentic freedom," without which the truth that Christianity offers cannot be found.
"On the other hand there are those who wrongly interpret this search for the truth, leading them to irrationality and fanaticism; they close themselves up in 'their truth' and try to impose it on others," he said from the altar, backed by an image of Cuba's revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
Still, it was unclear how much the pope's message resonated with ordinary Cubans.
Many in the crowd had trouble hearing him over the loudspeakers, and others said it was hard to understand the dense biblical message delivered by the pope in a soft voice.
"I don't understand this Mass at all. I don't have an education in these things and I know nothing about religion," said Mario Mendez, a 19-year-old communications student. "On top of that, I can't hear anything."
Benedict's comments were an unmistakable criticism of the Cuban reality even if the pope didn't mention the government by name, said the Rev. Joseph Fessio, a former student of Benedict's. As his U.S. publisher, Fessio knows well the pope's message and how he transmits it, particularly the watchwords of his pontificate: truth and freedom.
"Does anyone in Cuba not know how the words themselves condemn the reality there?" Fessio said in an email.
Benedict's trip was aimed largely at building a greater place for his church in the least Catholic nation in Latin America. In his homily, he urged authorities to let the church more freely preach its message and educate its young in the faith in schools and universities. Religious schools were closed after the Castros came to power a half-century ago.
He praised openings for religion made since the early 1990s, when the government abandoned official atheism and slowly warmed to the church, a pattern that accelerated with the visit of Pope John Paul II.
"It must be said with joy that in Cuba steps have been taken to enable the church to carry out her essential mission of expressing her faith openly and publicly," Benedict said. "Nonetheless this must continue forward" for the good of Cuban society.