Pope Francis gets euphoric welcome in Cuba

Pope offers solidarity with Cuba, plans to highlight migrants' suffering

HAVANA - After Cubans gave Pope Francis a hero's red-carpet welcome Saturday at Jose Marti International Airport, thousands cheered as his iconic popemobile made its way down the municipality of Boyeros. He will spend the night at the home of the Vatican's ambassador to Cuba in the neighborhood of Miramar.

Although the pope has been urging Raul Castro and President Barack Obama to work together, the pope didn't talk about politics. He said his visit to Cuba coincides with the 100 anniversary of the Virgin of Charity, the patron saint of Cuba. And he closed his short address with a message of reconciliation.

"May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself to the world, and may the world open itself to Cuba," Pope Francis said during his speech at Jose Marti International Airport, where Raul Castro welcomed him and held a ceremony with the Cuban military honor guard in his honor.

RAW VIDEO: Sights, sounds of welcoming ceremony

It's the first time the 78-year-old Argentine Jesuit -- who became the first Latin American pope in 2013 -- visits the island. His Sunday morning Mass will be at the Revolution Square.

He is the third pontiff to visit Cuba in the past 17 years — a remarkable record for any country, much less one with such a tiny Catholic community. During his address after landing, Pope Francis did not repeat his criticism of the atheist revolution, which he has said denies individuals their "transcendent dignity."

Andrew Chesnut, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor, said the pope's mention of Jose Marti was a criticism of the Castro brothers.

"He specifically referenced Marti as a fighter against 'dynasties,' a reference of course to the five decade-long Castro regime," Chesnut said.

TRANSLATION:  Castro's speech | Pope's speech

Guzman Carriquiry, a close Vatican aide of the pope's, said Francis' key aim in traveling to Cuba was pastoral, not political. That's not to say there won't be politics on the agenda: It will just take place behind closed doors.

"The motive of the trip is to confirm the Catholic faith of Cubans and encourage a church that has suffered in the past decades," Carriquiry said at a recent church conference.

Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the issue of Cuban dissidents could come up in private discussions between Francis and Raul Castro, and their respective secretaries of state.

"You can discuss problems of this type without dealing with them in clamorous ways," Lombardi said.


PROFILE: Rev. Gilbert Walker's story

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In Havana, the Cuban government launched an effort to bring crowds into the streets of the capital.

Officials offered state workers' a day's pay, snacks and transportation, so that they could gather along the pope's route from the airport to the papal ambassador's home. University students were also recruited to turn out.

"This visit is like a breath of hope blowing over Cuba, more than anything because of the role that the pope played in the reestablishment of relations," said Diego Carrera, a 71-year-old retired state worker in Havana.

Pope Francis will travel to the eastern Cuban city of Santiago Monday to pray at the sanctuary of Cuba's patron saint and stop in the city of Holguin en route, demonstrating once again his desire to visit the most peripheral of places that often get overlooked.

POPE'S U.S. VISIT

After five days in Cuba, he will part to the U.S., where his popularity ratings are high. He has gained detractors, particularly among conservatives over his critiques of the excesses of capitalism. But that view has endeared him to Castro, who vowed earlier this year that if Francis kept it up, he would return to the Catholic Church.

It will also be the first time Pope Francis visits the United States.

COMMENTARY: Could Pope bring Raul Castro back to faith?

The pope, who is the son of Italian migrants, arrives in Washington, D.C., Tuesday.  The first family will greet him at Andrews Air Force Base.

His trip boasts several firsts for history's first Latin American pope: He will be the first pope to address the U.S. Congress. He will proclaim the first saint on U.S. soil when canonizing the controversial missionary, Junipero Serra.

He will also grab the world stage at the United Nations to press his agenda on migration, the environment and religious persecution.

The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said the Holy See hopes the U.S. will remove the embargo, which the Vatican has long opposed. On Friday, Obama eased rules for U.S. citizens wishing to travel to Cuba and simplified procedures for telephone and Internet investments and money transfers.

POPE'S ITINERARY: From Sept. 19 in Havana to Sept. 27 in Philadelphia

Spanish-speaking undocumented migrants were making plans to see Pope Francis.  They make up about 38 percent of adult Catholics in the U.S., according to the CARA research center at Georgetown University.

Francis will deliver most of his speeches in his native Spanish, even though he speaks very good English. He will meet with immigrants on several occasions and bless a wooden cross particularly important to the faithful.

Francis has called for countries to be more welcoming of migrants seeking a better life for themselves and decried in particular the plight of would-be migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border— signaling he has no qualms about wading into a politically charged issue during the U.S. presidential campaign.

ABOUT THE POPE

Pope Francis is the 266th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. He is the first non-European and the first Jesuit priest to be named pope. He took the title after St. Francis of Assisi of Italy.

Birth: Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio Dec. 17, 1936, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is the son of Italian immigrants.

Education: He entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus in 1958 and he was ordained a pried in 1969. He studied chemistry, philosophy and theology, and he finished his doctorate in theology in Germany in 1986.

Church history: In Argentina, he was bishop of Auca and auxiliary of Buenos Aires in 1992. In 2001, he became cardinal to Pope John Paul II. He was president of the Bishop's Conference of Argentina from 2005 to 2011. He became Pope Francis March 13, 2013.

Another hot-button issue the pope will raise is religious liberty, following the legalization of gay marriage across the country. For the pope though, religious liberty also means denouncing the persecution of Christians by Islamic extremists in the Mideast and Africa.

He will also likely talk about the church's opposition to the birth control coverage requirement in the Obama administration's health care plan. Next week, the pope will travel to Philadelphia to participate in the church's World Meeting of Families, a big Catholic rally to reinforce church teaching on marriage.

Traditional family values are expected to be high on the agenda, especially since the Philadelphia event amounts to the opening act of a major and contentious meeting of the world's bishops on family issues — including gays and divorcees — that gets underway a week after Francis returns to Rome.

The archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, said he expected Francis would do what his predecessors have done on trips to the U.S.: Remind America of its greatness, of its long history of welcoming foreigners and of the freedoms, first sketched out in Philadelphia, that formed the foundation of American democracy and society.

"He will remind of us our nobility," Dolan said in a recent interview in the New York City archdiocese. "He will affirm our heritage and in doing that he'll also remind us of the moral imperative to live up to that."

Reporters' notebook:

While on the flight from Italy to Cuba, Pope Francis shared meat-filled "empanadas" with the 75 reporters who were traveling with him. A Spanish-language correspondent gave the pope an official copy of the winged statue they won for covering the 2013 conclave that elected him.

Pope Francis also talked to reporters about a meeting with refugee Syrian family of four, who arrived from Damascus and was taken in by the Vatican.  In his words, "You could see the pain in their faces."

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The Associated Press Reporters Nicole Winfield, Michael Weissenstein and Reachel Zoll worked on this report. CNN Religion Editor Daniel Burke contributed to this story. And Local 10 News' producer Michelle Lacamoire also contributed to this story.

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