HAVANA • Pope Francis has met Cuba's revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, his brother President Raul Castro and celebrated Mass with tens of thousands of followers in Havana's Revolution Square, as police prevented some dissidents from getting close to the pontiff.
He discussed religion and world affairs with Dr Castro at the 89-year-old retired president's home, just hours after the Pope warned Cubans of the dangers of ideology and the lure of selfishness as their communist-ruled country enters a new era of closer ties with the United States.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said Sunday's meeting, which included Dr Castro's wife and other family members, was "very relaxed, fraternal and friendly".
Pope Francis, 78, gave Dr Castro several of his writings, two books on spirituality and a book and CD on the writings of Father Armando Llorente, a priest who taught Dr Castro in Jesuit prep school more than 70 years ago.
Dr Castro gave the pontiff a copy of Fidel And Religion, a 1985 book of interviews with a Brazilian priest which lifted a taboo on speaking about religion in Cuba, then officially atheist.
The Pope also had an hour-long private meeting with 84-year-old President Raul Castro at the Palace of Revolution. An atheist like his brother, Mr Castro surprised the Pope by giving him a sculpture of a life-sized Jesus Christ nailed to a cross made of oars and adorned with fishing nets. Neither man made any public remarks about their discussions.
Pope Francis has drawn widespread praise in Cuba for his role in supporting negotiations last year that led to a historic rapprochement between the US and Cuba.
For those hoping that he would speak about political freedom, the moment seemed ripe. Pope Francis did speak about politics: Colombian politics. He encouraged that country's peace talks.
As for Cuban politics, he has spoken in what might be called "pope code". At the plaza and other events on Sunday, he refrained from any direct criticisms of the government but made oblique asides that could be interpreted as disapproval - or explained away as anything but.
At Sunday morning's Mass, he sprinkled his homily with criticism of "elitism" and ideology.
"Service is never ideological," Pope Francis said, after summoning Cubans to embrace the Christian ideal of service, "for we do not serve ideas. We serve people."
As the first Latin-American Pope, he is enormously influential in his native region. Yet he is careful to avoid seeming too political and is being especially careful in navigating the politics of Cuba.
This cautiousness has frustrated some dissidents who wanted a public meeting with him.
An estimated 50 government opponents have been detained and prevented from attending papal events since he arrived on Saturday, according to the dissident Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.
Later on Sunday, the Pope held a rally with young people, enjoying improvising and telling jokes in Spanish, their common native language. He told them to have the courage to think outside the box after hearing one of them say Cuba's youth was united in a desire for "profound change" in the country.
Pope Francis will celebrate Mass in Cuba's eastern cities of Holguin and Santiago before he flies out today to the US, where he will meet President Barack Obama and address both the US Congress and the United Nations.
REUTERS, THE NEW YORK TIMES