Cuba's President Raul Castro walks with Pope Benedict after the pope arrived in Cuba March 26.

CNS PHOTO | PAUL HARING

Cuba's President Raul Castro walks with Pope Benedict after the pope arrived in Cuba March 26.

April 2, 2012
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

Pope Benedict began his three days in Cuba with a call for greater freedom and human rights, including increased liberty for the Catholic Church to proclaim the Gospel and serve the Cuban people.

After flying from Mexico, the pope was greeted at the airport in Santiago de Cuba March 26 by President Raul Castro.

"I come to Cuba as a pilgrim of charity, to confirm my brothers and sisters in the faith and strengthen them in the hope which is born of the presence of God's love in our lives," the pope told the crowd.

He said the visit in 1998 of Blessed John Paul II "left an indelible mark on the soul of all Cubans" and was "like a gentle breeze of fresh air, which gave new strength to the Church in Cuba."

After the visit 14 years ago, the government began granting concessions for public processions, gave the Church some access to media, eased the process for visas for foreign Church personnel and helped restore some older Church buildings.

Pope Benedict told Castro that Blessed John Paul's visit inaugurated "a new phase in the relationship in Cuba between Church and state in a new spirit of cooperation and trust."

But he also said, "many areas remain in which greater progress can and ought to be made, especially as regards the indispensable public contribution that religion is called to make in the life of society."

Pope Benedict acknowledged the economic difficulties experienced by the vast majority of Cubans and the fact that the situation has worsened because of the global financial crisis. The crisis has had a negative impact on tourism, a key source of income and employment on the island.

In talking about the economic challenges facing Cuba, Pope Benedict spoke about the moral and ethical failures that he believes caused the global crisis.

The crisis is "part of a profound spiritual and moral crisis which has left humanity devoid of values and defenceless before the ambition and selfishness of certain powers which take little account of the true good of individuals and families," he said.

The answer, the pope said, must be "an ethics which focuses on the human person and takes account of the most profound human needs, especially man's spiritual and religious dimension."

"The rebirth of society demands upright men and women of firm moral convictions, with noble and strong values who will not be manipulated by dubious interests and who are respectful of the unchanging and transcendent nature of the human person," the pope said.

In his speech welcoming the pope, Castro told the pope that his government shares many ideas with the Catholic Church, particularly the need for an economic system marked by solidarity.

On the global economy, he said "instead of solidarity, a systematic crisis is spreading, provoked by irrational consumption in affluent societies." In those societies a few take all the wealth, depriving the "poor, the hungry, the untreated sick and the unemployed" of what they need.