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Pope Francis Preaches Peaceful Politics In Cuba

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Pope Francis celebrated mass this morning for hundreds of thousands of Cubans in Havana's Revolution Square. One goal of the papal visit is to show solidarity with the long suffering Catholic church in Cuba. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is in Havana, she joins us on the line.

Hi, Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Hi, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So could you tell us - the pope's homily this morning, what was the main message?

POGGIOLI: Well, he returned to one of his main themes - the need to serve the poor and vulnerable, speaking specifically about the Cuban people. He said Cubans are a people with wounds, like other people. Yet Cubans know how to keep walking in hope because, he said, they have a vocation for grandeur.

He called on Cubans to use these gifts in the service of those who are frail and not neglect them for, quote, "plans," unquote, which can be seductive but are unconcerned about the person next to you. I'm not sure if I'm reading this correctly, but perhaps he was making a critique as Cubans face a very difficult social transition, against both the Marxist model they've experienced for 50 years, and what the pope often denounces as the selfish and harmful consumerist social model.

WERTHEIMER: What was the scene at the mass? How did the crowds react to him?

POGGIOLI: Oh, it was quite something. There were massive crowds gathered in the big Revolution Square, which is, of course, famous for the huge, metal portrait of the revolutionary hero Ernesto Che Guevara. And for the papal visit, an equally big poster of Jesus Christ was placed nearby. Now since the number of actual churchgoing Catholics has dropped tremendously in the last few decades, many people in the crowd were probably nonbelievers who came to cheer the man who they see as a catalyst or at least a midwife of the U.S.-Cuba (unintelligible) process. They came to celebrate Francis the peacemaker and Francis the fellow Latin American. The mood was really wildly festive. There were thousands of flags waving, singing, maracas. It was something like the Vatican meets Buena Vista Social Club.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter) Sylvia, you got to travel with the pope from Rome to Havana. I understand you also got a chance to talk to him. Tell us about it.

POGGIOLI: Well, very briefly, this was my first time on board the papal plane, and I have to quote my colleague and friend Rachel Donadio of The New York Times who's described the atmosphere as somewhere between a presidential campaign and a medieval pilgrimage. Now Pope Francis has added a more informal touch. He's made a habit of coming back to economy, where the media have seats, and greets each reporter one-by-one. It's quite a scene as everyone scrambles to get a selfie. When he got to me, we shook hands and, in Italian, I brazenly blurted out that we have something in common. We both come from Italian families that left Italy in the '20s and '30s and went to the Americas - mine to the United States, his to Argentina - he gave great attention. It was really, really quite intriguing to see him up close.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.
Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.
As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories.