On a visit to Cuba that is laden with politics almost as much as with matters of faith, Pope Benedict XVI paused in the eastern mining town of El Cobre early yesterday to pray quietly before a small wooden statue seen by many on the island, including non-Catholics, as the mother of all Cubans.
The Pontiff later boarded his papal plane for Havana and private meetings with the Cuban leadership beginning with Raul Castro and possibly also his brother, Fidel, who stepped down for health reasons nearly six years ago. Today, he will hold a giant outdoor Mass in the capital, the climax of his visit.
The Pope travelled to Cuba from Mexico at the weekend. On the plane from Rome, he risked offending his Cuban hosts saying that Marxism "no longer responds to reality". He offered a slightly more nuanced message at an open-air Mass in Cuba's second biggest city, Santiago de Cuba on Monday. "I appeal to you to reinvigorate your faith... that you may strive to build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity," he said.
Staying with the theme in El Cobre, the Pontiff said: "I have entrusted to the Mother of God the future of your country, advancing along the ways of renewal and hope, for the greater good of all Cubans."
In Havana, a top government official noted that while economic reforms are being implemented, the political changes the Pontiff appeared to be hinting at were not on the table.
"We are updating our economic model but we are not talking about political reform," said Marino Murillo.
Pope Benedict arrived in Cuba 14 years after the historic visit to the island by John Paul II. Credited with helping to bring down communism in Europe, the late Pontiff then vigorously urged Fidel Castro to release prisoners of conscience and allow the Catholic Church to grow again on the island.
The role of the Church in Cuba was also expected to be on the agenda of yesterday's talks. Two years ago, Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana took a central role helping to mediate the release of scores of political prisoners, many of whom then left the island for Spain. Among Latin American countries, however, Cuba is the least fervently Catholic with only about one in ten actively practising and attending church.
Pope Benedict's visit to El Cobre yesterday and the Virgin of Charity icon was central to his effort to ignite a new era of relevance for the Church in the country. Few on the streets of Cuba will be aware of the Pope's references to Marxism on his plane as they were not broadcast in the state-controlled media.
And while some of those attending his Masses did so under pressure from the government, many who might have wanted to see the Pope, including any anti-government dissidents were reportedly ordered to stay away. According to the dissident leader Elizardo Sanchez, some anti-government figures, including members of a group called Ladies in White who demand the release of political prisoners, were rounded up by the security forces in the days before the Pope's arrival.