SANTA CLARA, Cuba -- Pope John Paul II celebrated his first Mass in Cuba here yesterday and denounced the societal "evils" of abortion and sexual promiscuity, challenging the Communist regime to allow the Roman Catholic Church to operate parochial schools that were secularized after the revolution.
"No ideology can replace [Jesus Christ's] infinite wisdom and power," the pope told a crowd of nearly 200,000 who attended the Mass on an athletic field in this gritty industrial city about 185 miles east of Havana.
Upon his return to Havana yesterday after the Mass, the pope had a private meeting with President Fidel Castro. Neither of them made a statement afterward, but they exchanged gifts. The pope gave Castro a mosaic of Christ. Castro gave the pope a biography of the Cuban patriot priest, the Rev. Felix Varela, and presented him with the Order of Felix Varela, Cuba's highest cultural honor.
Pope John Paul celebrated the Mass in Santa Clara at an altar under the shade of an A-frame wooden chapel covered with a thatched roof.
Hanging from tall light standards, long streamers in the red, white and blue of the Cuban flag and the yellow and white of the Vatican flag fluttered in the steady breeze. On a hill overlooking the field sat a giant portrait of the pope.
Addressing the issue of the family, Pope John Paul first praised the values in Cuban society that sustain and strengthen families: "deep respect for their elders, a lofty sense of responsibility, sincere submission to parental authority, happiness and optimism, whether in poverty or plenty."
The pope went on to denounce attitudes in society and the government that he believes threaten the family.
"This happens when married couples live in economic or cultural systems which, under the guise of freedom and progress, promote or even defend an anti-birth mentality and thus induce married couples to have recourse to methods of regulating fertility which are incompatible with human dignity," he said.
"There is even an acceptance of abortion, which is always, in addition to being an abominable crime, a senseless impoverishment of the person and of society."
Cuba is one of three countries in the Western Hemisphere, along with the United States and Canada, that allow abortion on demand. Here it is offered free of charge at state hospitals.
At one point the rate in Cuba was as high as one abortion for every live birth, but government officials now claim it is about half that rate. Even before Castro came to power in 1959, abortion was legal in Cuba.
The pope went on to list social conditions in Cuba that threaten family stability: "for example, material scarcities -- as when wages are not sufficient or have a very limited buying power -- dissatisfaction for ideological reasons, the attraction of the consumer society."
Such factors force people to work away from their families and emigrate to other countries, "which has torn apart whole families and caused suffering for a large part of the population," he said.
The effect is particularly damaging to the country's youth, he said, and such experiences "place young people in situations which sadly result in the spread of promiscuous behavior, loss of ethical values, coarseness, premarital sexual relations at an early age and easy recourse to abortion."
The pope spoke from an altar platform surrounded by a delegation of bishops in this town that has a special place in the history of Castro's revolution. It was here that his chief lieutenant, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, launched fatal raids against trainloads of troops dispatched by the dictator Fulgencio Batista to fight Castro's rebels.
Castro erected a memorial to Guevara in this city, where yesterday banners welcomed the pope's arrival.
"Juan Pablo, Amigo," proclaimed one banner: John Paul, Friend.
School plea draws approval
The pope received the most applause when he called on the Cuban government to allow the church to reopen parochial schools. Schools run by the Catholic church were taken over by the state in the early 1960s.
Parents, he said, must be the first educators of children. "It is true that in the area of education public authority has certain rights and duties, since it must serve the common good," the pope said. "Nonetheless, this does not give public authority the right to take the place of parents.
"Consequently, parents, without expecting others to replace them in a matter which is their own responsibility, should be able to choose for their children the pedagogical method, the ethical and civic content and the religious inspiration which will enable them to receive an integral education," he said to loud applause.
"The family, the school and the church must form an educational community in which the children of Cuba can grow in humanity," the pope said. He repeated the phrase once more at the end of his homily.