Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Mass in Santiago, Cuba. (Alberto Pizzoli, AFP/Getty…)
SANTIAGO, Cuba — In a historic trip to Cuba on Monday, Pope Benedict XVI reached out to island residents and exiles alike, urging Cubans to "build a renewed and open society, a better society."
Benedict became only the second pontiff to travel to Cuba, a nation where the Roman Catholic Church has gradually gained ground as the communist government has been forced to reform many of its policies. Before his arrival, Benedict criticized Cuba's Marxism as an obsolete model in need of change.
"I carry in my heart the just aspirations and legitimate desires of all Cubans, wherever they may be," Benedict said in an airport welcoming ceremony in Santiago. "Their sufferings and their joys, their concerns and their noblest desires, those of the young and the elderly, of adolescents and children, of the sick and workers, of prisoners and their families, and of the poor and those in need."
Benedict was greeted at the airport by President Raul Castro and senior Roman Catholic clerics, while thousands of Cubans from the island and abroad lined the routes his motorcade took in sunny, seafront Santiago, Cuba's second-largest city. They tapped drums, waved Cuban and Vatican flags and chanted Benedict's name.
Castro used the welcoming ceremony to promise religious freedom for Cuba's diverse panoply of believers who range from Catholics to practitioners of Santeria. And he condemned the 50-year-old "economic, political and media blockade" imposed by the United States against the communist government, saying it "will never separate us from our truth."
The president has embarked on an unprecedented though slow path of economic reform in which Cubans for the first time in nearly half a century can open businesses and buy and sell property. But political freedoms lag behind. Dissidents, regarded by the government as subversives, said they've been ordered to steer clear of papal events.
As darkness fell, Castro and members of his Cabinet, all dressed in white guayaberas, sat in the front rows of a vast Mass presided over by Benedict in the Antonio Maceo plaza (named for a commander in Cuba's 19th century fight for independence from Spain). Local organizers built an altar for the service, constructing it in the shape of a papal miter and decorated in white and blue to represent the sea.
As the Mass got underway, a young man jumped up and yelled, "In Cuba, we are not free!" He was taken away, apparently by police.
Many of the faithful who came from afar to see the pope said they hoped he would foster more change.
Ernestina Martinez, a teacher, said she wanted the pope's presence to give hope to Roman Catholic believers in Cuba. "His visit is a consolation for those of us who believe," she said. "He gives us faith and unity, and in Cuba we need faith to believe that a better future awaits us."
Rolando Pereda, a Cuban American restaurant owner who traveled to Santiago from Miami, said he prayed that Benedict would give a message of change that reaches Raul Castro and his brother Fidel, who led the country for decades.
"I am here because I am Catholic and Cuban," he said. "I have faith things can finally change in this country, the change we Cubans so desire, and that the regime will finally end."
A 20-year-old student named Juan, who did not want to give his last name, said the pope was welcome and would be respected. "But sincerely, I do not think that his visit will change the situation here," he said. "Here we say we respect what outsiders say, but on the island, we do what Fidel says and wants."
Santiago, about 500 miles east of Havana, is both the "cradle" of the revolution — it was the site of the first uprising that would eventually take Fidel Castro to power — and is also considered strongly Catholic.
The timing of the pope's visit coincides with the 400th anniversary of the discovery of a small wooden image of Our Lady of Charity, the patron saint of Cuba, in the sea off Santiago. A basilica in her honor was erected in nearby Cobre, and Catholics from much of Latin America seek out her purportedly miraculous powers by making pilgrimages to Cobre. The pope, too, will pray at the sanctuary on Tuesday and stay near Cobre, in a flower-festooned house built for him.
"Following in the footsteps of countless pilgrims down the centuries, I too wish to go to El Cobre to kneel at the feet of the Mother of God, to thank her for her concern for all her Cuban children," the pope said, "and to ask her to guide the future of this beloved nation in the ways of justice, peace, freedom and reconciliation."
In Monday evening's Mass, church officials brought the wooden statue to the plaza, sending waves of emotion through the crowd of people, who danced and sang Caribbean hymns.
The Cuban government spruced up the area ahead of the pope's arrival, repairing crumbling facades. Security was tight, with police deployed throughout Santiago; some approached and seemed to eavesdrop when reporters interviewed pilgrims.