HOLGUIN, Cuba – Pope Francis arrived this morning in Holguín, Cuba, flying an hour and twenty minutes on the chartered Alitalia flight dubbed “Shepherd One” by the Vatican Press. (For its part, the Vatican officially refers to accredited journalists traveling on the papal plane as VAMPs, short for Vatican Authorized Media Personnel, much to the amusement of English speakers).
The 78-year-old Argentine pontiff traveled to Cuba's third-largest city and celebrated a Mass at which Cuban rhythms mixed with church hymns under a scorching tropical sun while thousands waved the flags of Cuba and the Vatican.
He used his homily to once again speak of reconciliation between former enemies. Urging the crowd "to slowly overcome our preconceptions and our reluctance to think that others, much less ourselves, can change."
Francis recalled that Monday is the Feast day of St. Matthew, who in the Bible was much despised prior to becoming an apostle because he collected taxes from his fellow Jews for the Romans.
But one day Jesus walked by, stared at Matthew and the official's heart was “unlocked” by the gaze of the son of God. Referring this conversion, the Pope asked, “Is it possible that a traitor can become a friend?”
Since his arrival Saturday evening in Havana for his first ever visit to the communist nation, Pope Francis has preached forgiveness and mercy while walking a fine line, trying not to offend the Castro government but still peppering his speeches and homilies with subtle references to the need for political change.
Yesterday, in a historic Mass in Revolution Square in front of about 200,000 faithful, Francis preached the importance of serving people, "not ideologies."
Afterward he visited with both Raúl and Fidel Castro, with whom he exchanged books on religion.
But in an evening encounter with youths, Francis in eloquent prose that moved many in the audience to tears spoke of the dangers of getting "locked" in ideologies.
"Why do we always throw a stone about that which divides us, instead of holding hands over what unites us?” Francis asked. “Let’s dare to talk about what we have in common, and then we’ll talk about our differences."
In Holguín, security agents didn't let members of the crowd get close to the pope. On Sunday, an apparent dissident hung on to the popemobile and seemed to be appealing to the pontiff before getting dragged away.
The head of the opposition group Ladies in White said that 22 of 24 members who wanted to attend Francis' Mass on Sunday were prevented from going by Cuban security agents. And two well-known Cuban dissidents said agents detained them after the Vatican had invited them to the pope's vespers service at Havana's cathedral.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, confirmed that some dissidents were invited to events to receive a greeting from the pope but said he didn't know why it didn't come to pass.
Lombardi also noted that St. Matthew’s feast day also has an important personal significance for Francis.
In 1953, when Jorge Maria Bergoglio was only 17, he decided to stop into St. Joseph Church in Buenos Aires for confession with a Jesuit priest, Father Duarte, before joining friends for a picnic. He has often said that, like Matthew, on that day his heart was “unlocked,” and he made the decision to study to become a priest.
He never made it to the picnic.
In the past 15 years, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI made pilgrimages to Cuba in an effort to open the island to the Church after it was outlawed following the 1959 revolution, but neither visited Holquín.
Now Pope Francis is seen as a hero on the island for helping to broker the rapprochement between Cuba and the U.S., while the Church tries to position itself as promoter of civil society and a buffer between the people and the authoritarian government that rules them.
According to Catholic writer Gerald O'Collins, the church is concerned that once the embargo with the U.S. is lifted, there will be an uncontrolled influx of capital, and, with it, social exclusion of the weakest on the island. Something like what happened in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union.
The church wants to ensure that the transition does not lead to disposing of the weakest of the island's 11 million.
Later today, Francis will fly to Santiago de Cuba in the southeast of the island and then tomorrow for Washington, D.C., for his six-day, three city pilgrimage to the U.S., his first ever visit.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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