Cuban President Raul Castro met Pope Francis on Sunday at the Vatican, where he thanked the pontiff for his mediation in the process of normalising relations with the US and discussed the Pope’s planned visit to the island in September.
Castro said after the 55-minute meeting, one of the longest the Pope has held with any head of state or government, that he felt “moved”.
The 83-year-old Cuban leader, who later met Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, told reporters that he left the papal audience feeling “moved by the wisdom, the modesty and all of the virtues” of the Argentine-born pontiff.
“I read all of the pope’s speeches and if the pope keeps talking like this, I’ll go back to praying and will return to the church, and I’m not joking,” Castro said.
The Cuban leader said he planned to attend “all of the Masses” that the pope will celebrate during his visit to Cuba, adding that he was educated by the Jesuits, the same order that the pontiff belongs to.
Castro described his private audience with the Pope as “cordial” and “warm”.
The audience was like “preparation for the visit to Cuba” by the Pope, Castro said.
The details of the Pope’s visit to the island have not been finalised, with Vatican officials not yet confirming whether the pontiff will spend one or two days in Cuba.
Pope Francis plans to make a stopover on the island on his way to the US, where he is expected to arrive on Sep 22.
Castro’s meeting with the Pope was described as “strictly private”, but the same protocols in place for visits by leaders were followed, with the delegations being introduced and gifts exchanged.
Castro gave the pope a painting by Cuban artist Alexis Leyva Machado showing a large cross with several boats and a child praying, as well as one of the 25 medallions marking the bicentennial of the Havana Cathedral.
Pope Francis gave Castro a medal of St. Martin of Tours, the patron saint of Buenos Aires, and a copy of his Apostolic Exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel).
“Here you’ll find one of those declarations you like so much,” the Pope joked with Castro.
About 10 people, including Cuban Council of Ministers Vice President Ricardo Cabrisas Ruiz, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and Cuban Ambassador to the Holy See Rodney Lopez, attended the audience.
Castro introduced his youngest son, Alejandro, and one of his grandchildren to the pontiff.