On Saturday, the Holy Father visited with lepers and AIDS patients at a hospice south of Havana, making a surprise public call for the release of political prisoners in the Communist country. He described his visit with the patients as an "encounter with the world of suffering," and added that "Christ is very close to all who suffer." The Pontiff also called on Fidel Castro's government to promote an atmosphere of reconciliation and dialogue by releasing prisoners of conscience. "These prisoners of conscience suffer an isolation and a penalty for something for which their own conscience does not condemn them," he said. "I encourage efforts to re-insert prisoners into society."
Earlier on Saturday, during a Mass in the eastern city of Santiago, Cuban Archbishop Pedro Meurice openly attacked the government, warning against "false Messiahs," as the Pontiff and the Cuba's second most powerful figure, Raul Castro, looked on. He said that after the 1959 revolution, the Church was "impoverished" by an "ideological confrontation with Marxist-Leninism intentionally induced by the government."
At the climactic papal Mass in Havana's Revolution Square on Sunday, chants of "Freedom, Freedom" from the 300,000 people in attendance rang out even as Fidel Castro looked on. When the Holy Father called for freedom of conscience, "the basis and foundation of all other human rights," he was answered with the ringing refrain, "The Pope wants us all free." He was interrupted by cheers more than 20 times during his homily as called for religious freedom and criticized atheistic Communion while also slamming unbridled capitalism that leaves people at the mercy of market forces.
In a speech as the Holy Father prepared to leave the country, Castro seemed to mocked critics of his regime who predict that the Pope's visit will lead to the fall of Communism. "There were those who forebode apocalyptic events," Castro said. "Some even dreamed of them." The Pope wound up his visit with a tough condemnation of the 35-year-old US embargo, saying it was an indiscriminate measure that hurt the poor. "The ... imposed isolation strikes the people indiscriminately, making it ever more difficult for the weakest to enjoy the bare essentials of decent living, things such as food, health, and education," he said.
For a complete summary of the Pope's appearances and addresses in Cuba during the final three days of his visit, see today's CWN headlines below.