Pope's last Cuba Mass draws crowds, Castro Pontiff renews calls for freedom, faults capitalism's excesses

January 26, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HAVANA -- Pope John Paul II's historic visit to this last bastion of communism in the Western Hemisphere culminated yesterday with an outdoor Mass where a jubilant crowd of more than 200,000 heard him press again for greater freedom under the socialist regime and denounce the excesses of capitalism.

Cubans chanted and cheered the pope on his fifth day here at the Mass held in Havana's Plaza of the Revolution, the traditional gathering place for Cuba's Communist Party.

In a homily interrupted by applause more than 20 times, John Paul told Cuban Catholics their church is "not alone or isolated."

"As everyone knows, Cuba has a Christian soul and this has brought her a universal vocation," he said with President Fidel Castro sitting nearby. "Called to overcome isolation, she needs to open herself to the world and the world needs to draw closer to Cuba, her people, their sons and daughters who are surely her greatest wealth."

During the grueling five-day trip, the pontiff has pulled no punches in criticizing human rights abuses and the lack of freedom of expression and religion in Cuba. During a homily Saturday in Santiago de Cuba, he uttered the word "freedom" 12 times, and that night, during a visit to leprosy and AIDS patients, called on the government to release the approximately 550 political prisoners in its jails.

At a ceremony last night shortly before Pope John Paul's departure about 7: 30, Castro, after listening to five days of criticism of his government, remained defiant. He noted that all of the pope's Masses and homilies were broadcast on national television and the pontiff's visit was covered by thousands of journalists.

"Cuba knows no fear and despises deceit; it listens with respect but believes in its ideas; it firmly defends its principles and has nothing to hide from the world."

Castro, who invited the pope to visit Cuba during a meeting between the two at the Vatican in 1996, has been gracious and solicitous of the pope during this visit, often guiding him by the elbow and inquiring about his health.

The 77-year-old pope has at times appeared haggard and ailing during the trip, particularly when he spent long periods under the sweltering tropical sun. Each day took him to a different provincial capital for an open air Mass before returning to Havana for an evening event.

Yesterday, the exuberant crowd seemed to energize the pontiff,

and he even resorted to his familiar sense to humor to get them to pipe down.

"I'm not against applause," he said, after his homily had been continually interrupted. "It allows the pope to rest."

It made the people applaud all the more, and chant, "Juan Pablo, amigo, el pueblo esta contigo," meaning, "John Paul, friend, the people are with you."

Castro, whose speeches tend to go on for hours, smiled at the pope's remark.

Mass sets precedent

Yesterday's Mass was the first celebrated in the plaza since a Catholic congress was held there shortly after the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959. Since the revolution, it has become the gathering place of the Cuban Communist Party faithful, and Castro has delivered many of his lengthy political speeches there from the base of the monument to the Cuban patriot Jose Marti.

Yesterday, though, the plaza belonged to the pope and the tens of thousands who came to see him, some of whom had arisen as early as 2 a.m. to get a place to see the Mass.

"I've never seen a crowd here this big," said an awe-struck Jose Pepe Pura, amazed both at the number of people and at the reason they gathered. "Ten years ago, this was a dream. This could not have happened."

Conflicting images

Pope John Paul celebrated the Mass on an altar under a white canvas A-framed structure, surrounded by a clash of symbols. Behind him was a huge painting of Jesus, several stories tall. To the pope's right was the 20-story-tall mural of the Cuban secular saint Ernesto "Che" Guevara, with a huge Cuban flag draped next to it.

In the plaza, normally a rather dreary asphalt-covered expanse, banners in the Vatican's yellow and white and Cuba's red, white and blue hung from utility poles, adding festive color. Children carried yellow and white balloons, with an image of Cuba's patroness, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, imprinted with the words "Always faithful."

The banners whipped in the steady breeze under overcast skies threatening rain that held off until well after the Mass. Over the sea of humanity waved flags, papal posters and handmade signs welcoming the pope.

At the back of the crowd stood Oreste Ortiz, 60, who was combining prayer with a little capitalism as he sold roasted nuts in white paper cones to hungry pilgrims for a peso apiece. He was doing a brisk business, and Ortiz, a Catholic, hoped he would sell out before the Mass so he could pay attention.

"I can't lose a day of work, because I have to pay for my license," he said, referring to the $100 a month fee charged by the government to engage in his enterprise.

Pope targets regime

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