Pope Francis, Latin America’s first pope, met Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro on Sunday, discussing religion and world affairs at the home of the 89-year-old retired president.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the meeting lasted about 40 minutes and was “very familiar, fraternal and friendly.” Castro’s wife and several children and grandchildren were present.
Francis gave Castro several of his official papal writings as well as two books on spirituality and a book and CD on the writings of Father Armando Llorente, a Jesuit priest who taught Castro in high school.
Castro gave him a copy of Fidel and Religion, a 1985 book of interviews with a Brazilian priest and writer that lifted a taboo about speaking about religion in Cuba, which was then officially atheist.
Fidel Castro, the older brother of President Raul Castro, led the Cuban government from 1959 until he resigned for health reasons, at first provisionally in 2006 and then definitively in 2008.
The meeting brought together the leader who shaped Cuba for the last half of the 20th century and Latin America’s first pope, who many Cubans credit with opening a path to the future by mediating the warming diplomatic relations between their country and the United States. After his Cuba visit, the pope flies to Washington for his first ever trip to the U.S.
Since their historic deal, Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro have reopened embassies in each other’s countries, held a personal meeting, had at least two phone calls and launched a process aimed at normalizing ties in fields ranging from trade to tourism to telecommunications.
Earlier, Pope Francis celebrated Mass in Havana’s Revolution Square and warned Cubans against the dangers of ideology as their country enters a new era of closer ties with the United States.
Tens of thousands of people were in the square where Cubans celebrate May Day beneath massive portraits of revolutionary leaders Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos built into the facades of state buildings.
While most Cubans are nominally Catholic, less than 10 percent practice their faith and Cuba is the least Catholic country in Latin America. The Vatican said 200,000 people attended Sunday’s Mass, more than at similar celebrations in the same plaza by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 and St. John Paul II in 1998.