HAVANA (USA TODAY)- Hundreds of thousands of Cubans swept into an electric Revolution Plaza on Sunday to see Pope Francis say Mass on the first leg of a trip that will also take him to Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia.
Thousands of singing, clapping Cubans began streaming into the square several hours before Mass began. Later, Francis smiled and waved to huge, adoring crowds as he rolled through the city streets in a partially glass-enclosed "popemobile" en route to the Mass. He exited the vehicle from time to time to warmly shake hands with some of the throngs lining the streets leading to the square.
Jose Rafael Velazquez, 54, arrived with his wife at the plaza three hours early. He admitted he was more interested in the historical aspects of the visit than he was in religion.
“We also are very hopeful for this visit, because the pope was key in the deal with the United States,” Velaquez told the Associated Press. “Ever since the announcement, there have been changes and this visit gives me more hope that it’ll get better.”
The Mass is just the beginning of a busy day for the pope, who will Cuban President Raul Castro and possibly Castro's brother, Fidel. A night prayer service and a meeting with young people also is scheduled.
Francis arrived here Saturday to thousands of cheering, flag-waving Cubans who turned out along his route through capital city. It was an enthusiastic showing for the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in a country where, according to one recent survey, less than one-third of its residents consider themselves Catholic.
“This is a visit for all Cubans, for all who want peace, not just Catholics,” said Orlando Alfaro, 43, who works for a tour company in Havana. “This is great for Cuba and great for Cubans.”
Peace and reconciliation are expected to be major themes of the pontiff’s four-day Cuba visit, which includes stops in Havana, Holguin and Santiago de Cuba.
Raul Castro and high-ranking members of Cuba’s Catholic Church greeted the pontiff at Jose Marti International Airport. White-jacketed members of a Cuban military band and about 100 Cuban youths were also on the tarmac. The youths, mostly university students, cheered and chanted as the pontiff’s Alitalia plane broke through the clouds and landed.
In a brief, 10-minute speech, Francis evoked the image of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba, and applauded the diplomatic rapprochement between the USA and Cuba.
“For some months now, we have witnessed an event which fills us with hope: the process of normalizing relations between two peoples following years of estrangement,” Francis said in his native Spanish. “I urge political leaders to persevere on this path and to develop all its potentialities.”
Castro thanked the pontiff for his role in bringing the USA and Cuba closer diplomatically and reiterated his long-standing call for the end of the U.S. embargo on Cuba. “The re-establishment of diplomatic relations has been a first step in the process toward normalization between both countries that is necessary for solving problems and righting injustices,” he said.
Later, the pontiff rode in a Popemobile-like car with open sides from the airport to his residence in Havana. He leaned out the sides and waved to the cheering throngs. The crowds had begun forming along the route more than four hours before his arrival, waving small Cuban and Vatican City flags. Some banners read: “Bienvendio a Cuba Papa Francisco,” as he’s known in Spanish.
Jose Ernesto Lopez, 19, took time off from studies at the University of Havana to cheer on Francis at the airport.
“We appreciate him and we want to follow his message,” Lopez said. “We hope he addresses the youth of Cuba, who really support him.”
It’s the 78-year-old pontiff’s first visit to Cuba but the third papal trip to the island in just two decades. Pope John Paul II’s groundbreaking visit to Cuba in 1998 was followed by a 2012 visit by Pope Benedict XVI. This trip carries added significance as the pontiff played a key role in the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between the USA and Cuba by sending personal letters to Presidents Obama and Raúl Castro last year, urging an end to their Cold War relationship.
Pope Francis’s global appeal, being the first Latin American pope and his ability to deliver speeches in his native Spanish could make his trip particularly impactful to Cubans, said Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America.
“There’s a special quality about this visit that will go beyond what we saw with John Paul II and Benedict,” he said. “The hope is that he’s a catalyst for spiritual transformation.”
Francis is scheduled to arrive Tuesday in the United States, touching down at Joint Base Andrews outside of Washington, D.C. He will meet with Obama on Wednesday morning and will hold a canonization mass in Spanish, the first ever on U.S. soil, forJunipero Serra, the Spanish Franciscan friar who founded a mission in the 18th century in what today is California.
The pontiff will address Congress on Thursday morning.
Contributing: John Bacon and Gregg Zoroya in McLean, Va.