Pope Benedict returned to Rome this morning after a private meeting last night with an aging (mellowing?) Fidel Castro. (Oh to have been a fly on that wall.) He had some parting shots on the Havana tarmac for both Cuban socialismo and the U.S. economic embargo of its one time surrogate. "The light of the Lord, has shone brightly during these days," the pope said. "May that light never fade in those who have welcomed it; may it help all people to foster social harmony and to allow the blossoming of all that is finest in the Cuban soul, its most noble values, which can be the basis for building a society of broad vision, renewed and reconciled." A suggestion perhaps of a third way forward into history guided by a resurging faith in Cuba, the pope followed up with the aforementioned double-shot of criticism: "May no one feel excluded from taking up this exciting task because of limitations of his or her basic freedoms, or excused by indolence or lack of material resources, a situation which is worsened when restrictive economic measures, imposed from outside the country, unfairly burden its people."
He added a concluding endorsement of individual liberty and communal fraternity: "I will continue praying fervently that you will go forward and that Cuba will be the home of all and for all Cubans, where justice and freedom coexist in a climate of serene fraternity. Respect and promotion of freedom which is present in the heart of each person are essential in order to respond adequately to the fundamental demands of his or her dignity and, in this way, to build up a society in which all are indispensable actors in the future of their life, their family and their country."
And Pope Benedict did not neglect to urge an end to geopolitical obstinance. "The present hour urgently demands that in personal, national and international co-existence we reject immovable positions and unilateral viewpoints which tend to make understanding more difficult and efforts at cooperation ineffective," Benedict said. "Possible discrepancies and difficulties will be resolved by tirelessly seeking what unites everyone, with patient and sincere dialogue, and a willingness to listen and accept goals which will bring new hope."
Regarding his 30-minute private session with Fidel, there were no last-minute bedside conversions to report, but at 85-years of age and with a successful revolution and epic decades-long resistance to persistent American connodling behind him, Castro may be pondering Peggy Lee's melancholy plaint: "Is that all there is?" According to Vatican spokesperson Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Castro's many questions for the Pope were an indication that "now his life is one dedicated to reflection and writing."
Lombardi added, "In the end, Commandante Fidel asked the pope to send him a few books" dealing with the questions he had.
The pope told Lombardi that Castro also asked about the reasons for the changes in the liturgy after the Second Vatican Council, about the role of the pope and about the pope's thinking about the larger philosophical questions weighing on the minds of people today.
Castro revealed himself yet another critic of contemporary liturgy, complaining to Benedict, "It's not the Mass I knew in my youth."
Other topics apparently included Castro's curiosity about how the church is handling the ethical challenges posed by scientific and technological developments and the relationship between faith and reason, as well as the pope's concerns about a growing number of people who don't believe in God or act as if God does not exist, Father Lombardi said. You know, small talk.
CNS's coverage of the pope's departure follows:
Pope criticizes US embargo, renews call for more freedom in Cuba
By Cindy Wooden Catholic News Service
HAVANA (CNS) -- Preparing to leave Cuba at the end of a three-day pastoral visit, Pope Benedict XVI made his first reference to the U.S. embargo of the island and the embargo's impact on the country's poor.
All Cubans need to work together to build a renewed and reconciled society, but progress is difficult given a "lack of material resources, a situation which is worsened when restrictive economic measures, imposed from outside the country, unfairly burden its people," the pope said March 28 during his official farewell ceremony. He did not mention the United States by name.
The ceremony was moved indoors at the last minute because of a sudden rain storm.
The Vatican repeatedly has criticized the U.S. embargo as a measure that has not forced Cuba's communist government to respect human rights, but instead has had a devastating effect on the Cuban people, especially the poor.
The pope said that peaceful coexistence requires individuals and nations to "reject immovable positions and unilateral viewpoints, which tend to make understanding more difficulty and efforts at cooperation ineffective."
"Patience and sincere dialogue" are necessary, he said.
Before departing from Havana's Jose Marti International Airport for his return flight to Rome, Pope Benedict told government officials and the Cuban public that he was convinced that, wherever Jesus Christ is present, "discouragement yields to hope, goodness dispels uncertainties and a powerful force opens up the horizon to beneficial and unexpected possibilities."
He said he hoped his presence in Cuba would strengthen those who "with perseverance and self-sacrifice" carry out the work of evangelization.
And he said he hoped no Cuban would feel excluded from taking up the "exciting search for his or her basic freedoms" or feel excused from the challenge because they lack energy or resources.
While the pope said his message was motivated by faith and the desire to share it, he insisted that societies themselves are better off when people are free to profess their faith and when faith-based schools and social services are allowed to operate.
He prayed that the light of faith would shine on Cuba, helping people "to foster social harmony and to allow the blossoming of all that is finest in the Cuban soul, its most noble values, which can be the basis for building a society of broad vision, renewed and reconciled."
Several miles of the main road leading to the airport were lined with crowds several people deep. A few waved Vatican or Cuban flags, but they did not demonstrate the wild enthusiasm shown for the pope's motorcade in Mexico just a few days earlier. Civilians with their backs to the road provided crowd control as the pope passed by in the popemobile and it began to rain.
Although the pope's stay in Cuba was drawing to an end, he said he would continue praying that the country would make progress in becoming a place "where justice and solidarity coexist in a climate of serene fraternity."
"Respect and promotion of freedom, which is present in the heart of each person, are essential in order to respond adequately to the fundamental demands of his or her dignity and, in this way, to build up a society in which all are indispensable actors" in the future of their own lives, that of their families and of Cuba itself, he said.