Havana – Thousands of Cubans filled Havana’s evocative Revolution Plaza to listen to Pope Francis’ urging that they look out for one another and not just judge others based on what they are or are not doing.
The Pontiff told those gathered on Sunday that those who want to be great must serve others, and not be served by them. He said Cubans should avoid “judgmental looks.”
“All of us are asked, indeed urged, by Jesus to care for another out of love,” he said. “Without looking to one side or the other to see what our neighbor is doing or not doing.”
It wasn’t immediately clear what Francis was referring to but many Cubans complain about the rigidity of a system in which virtually every aspect of life is controlled by the government – from cultural institutions to block-level neighborhood watch committees. People are excluded or lose benefits if they are perceived as being disloyal or unfaithful to the principles of the revolution.
That has eased in recent years, but it remains a problem in the eyes of many islanders and outside observers.
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Those who went to the Revolution Plaza for Pope Francis’ address on Sunday were curious to see history’s first Latin American pope on their home turf. They were hopeful over the key role he played in bringing the historic détente with the U.S.
Believers and non-believers alike streamed into the square before dawn to wait for Francis to arrive, and they erupted in cheers and when he made his first drive-through the crowd in his open-sided popemobile. They waved Cuban, Vatican and Argentine flags as a chorus sang a mix of traditional Cuban songs and religious tunes.
Francis stopped several times to kiss children handed up to him and to bless several wheelchair-bound Cubans. He seemed to want to prolong the time in the crowd, which was framed by the plaza's iconic metal portrait of Che Guevara and a huge poster of Christ facing the altar.
Mauren Gomez, 40, travelled some 250 kilometers (155 miles) from Villa Clara to Havana by bus with four friends for the Mass, saying they spent their pilgrimage praying the Rosary. "This is very important for us," she said.
Jose Rafael Velazquez, a 54-year-old worker, arrived with his wife at the plaza three hours before Mass was due to begin. He said he isn't religious, but came more out of curiosity to witness a historic event.
"We also are very hopeful for this visit, because the pope was key in the deal with the United States," he said. "Ever since the announcement, there have been changes and this visit gives me more hope that it'll get better."
During the mass Sunday, Francis also begged Colombia’s government and largest guerilla army to end South America’s longest-running conflict, saying they cannot allow another failure to derail peace efforts.
He said: "May the blood shed by thousands of innocent people during long decades of armed conflict" sustain efforts to find a definitive peace,
Francis added: "Please, we do not have the right to allow ourselves yet another failure on this path of peace and reconciliation."
Peace talks underway for more than two years between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and representatives of Bogota aim to end a half-century of fighting.
Upon his arrival to the island, Francis had plunged head-first into the rapprochement, urging the Cuban and U.S. governments to push forward on their newly forged path and "develop all its possibilities."
The Vatican has long opposed the U.S. trade embargo on the grounds that it hurts ordinary Cubans most, and is clearly hopeful that detente will eventually lead to a lifting of sanctions.
But only the U.S. Congress can remove the embargo. Francis will visit Congress next week at the start of the U.S. leg of his trip, but it's not known if he will raise the issue there.
Standing with Raul Castro by his side, Francis said the developments over recent months have given him hope.
"I urge political leaders to persevere on this path and to develop all its possibilities as a proof of the high service which they are called to carry out on behalf of the peace and well-being of their peoples, of all America, and as an example of reconciliation for the entire world," he said.
Castro, for his part, criticized the embargo as "cruel, immoral and illegal" and called for it to end. But he also thanked Francis again for his role in fostering "the first step" in a process of normalizing relations.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.