Cuban President Raul Castro paid a call Sunday on Pope Francis at the Vatican to thank him for working for Cuban-U.S. detente — and said he was so impressed by the pontiff he is considering a return to the Catholic church’s fold.
“Bienvenido!” the Argentine-born Francis said in his native Spanish, welcoming Castro to his studio near the Vatican public audience hall.
Castro, bowing his head, gripped Francis’ hand with both of his, and the two men began private talks. The meeting lasted nearly an hourh.
Francis will visit Cuba in September en route to the United States.
After leaving the Vatican, Castro, whose brother Fidel brought the Communists to power in Cuba, gushed with praise for Francis. The pontiff “is a Jesuit, and I, in some way, am too,” Castro said at a news conference. “I always studied at Jesuit schools.”
“When the pope goes to Cuba in September, I promise to go to all his Masses, and with satisfaction,” Castro said ina news conference at the office of Italian Premier Matteo Renzi, whom he met with after the Vatican talks.
“I read all the speeches of the pope, his commentaries, and if the pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the church, and I’m not joking,” he said.
It was a startling assertion for the leader of a country whose crackdowns on dissidents have drawn sharp Vatican criticism — though Cuba’s Communist regime has edged away from the official atheism that was once its policy, allowing religious believers to join.
“I am from the Cuban Communist Party, that doesn’t allow believers, but now we are allowing it, it’s an important step,” Castro said.
Speaking about Francis, Castro said he has been “very impressed by his wisdom, his modesty, and all his virtues that we know he has.”
Castro had already publicly thanked Francis for helping to bring Havana and Washington closer together after decades of U.S. government policy of strict isolation of the Communist-ruled Caribbean island. On Sunday, he stepped up his praise on Francis’ push for the two nations to put enmity aside and work for reconciliation for the benefit of Americans and Cubans.
As he took his leave from the Vatican, Castro told journalists, “I thanked the pope for what he did.”
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said the president also “laid out to the pope the sentiments of the Cuban people in the wait and preparation for his upcoming visit to the island in September.”
After his meeting with Renzi, Castro expressed hope that his country would quickly see more fruits of the thaw between Cuba and the United States. “Maybe the (U.S.) Senate will take us off the list of terrorist nations” soon, Castro told reporters.
Fidel Castro met with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in 1996. That encounter helped pave the way for John Paul’s 1998 pilgrimage to Cuba, the first visit by a pontiff to the island.
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