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3:00 am
Wed March 28, 2012

Pope To Officiate Mass In Cuban Capital

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Pope Benedict stuck to mostly spiritual themes on a visit to communist Cuba's most sacred shrine. This morning, the pontiff leads a mass in Havana's Plaza of the Revolution. As Nick Miroff reports from Havana, so far even Benedict's gentle push for greater religious and political freedoms for Cubans has been rejected by the government.

NICK MIROFF, BYLINE: Pope Benedict said he came to Cuba as a pilgrim, and Tuesday he made his pilgrimage to Cuba's most revered place, the Basilica of the Virgin of Charity outside Santiago de Cuba. Emerging from the spectacular cathedral, set against Cuba's Sierra Maestra Mountains, Benedict said he'd pray for the island to follow a path of renewal and hope.

POPE BENEDICT XVI: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: I've also prayed to the virgin mother for those in need, Benedict said, for those who suffer and for those deprived of freedom, those separated from their loved ones, or going through times of difficulty. From there, the 84-year-old Benedict continued on to Havana for the second part of his trip, holding private talks with President Raul Castro, but not his brother Fidel. A defining moment of the day came in a press conference at Havana's Hotel Nacional when Cuba's top economic official, Marino Murillo, was asked if the government would embrace the kind of reforms urged by the church to the island's political system as it tries to graft market principles onto its one-party socialist state.

MARINO MURILLO: (Spanish spoken)

MIROFF: We've already said we won't be political reforms, Marino said flatly. What we're updating is our economic model, and we have to be categorical about that. Today's mass will be Benedict's last chance to leave Cuba with a kind of resonant message Pope John Paul II delivered during his visit 14 years ago, imploring Cuba to open up to the world and for the world to open to Cuba. Judith Diaz, a doctor in Havana who's also a practicing Catholic, said the message she thought Cubans needed to hear was a simple one: peace.

DR. JUDITH DIAZ: (Spanish spoken)

MIROFF: When there's no love between people and there's no harmony within us, there's nothing that can be done, she said. Benedict will return to Rome shortly after today's mass, concluding the six-day trip, his first to Spanish-speaking Latin America in nearly seven years as pope. For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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