Cuban President Raul Castro paid a call on Pope Francis at the Vatican on Sunday to thank him for working toward Cuban-U.S. detente — and Castro later said he was so impressed by the pontiff that he is considering a return to the fold of the Roman Catholic Church.
“Bienvenido!" Francis said in his native Spanish, welcoming Castro to the pope’s studio near the Vatican public audience hall. The 83-year-old Cuban president, bowing his head, gripped Francis' hand with both of his, and the two men began private talks. The meeting lasted nearly an hour — unusually long for a papal meeting — as Castro and the Argentine-born Francis spoke in Spanish.
Papal audiences on Sundays are extremely rare. Francis made an exception when Castro asked if he could stop in Rome on his way back from Moscow to thank Francis for the Vatican mediation between the United States and Cuba, Cuban officials said. The Vatican said the meeting was strictly private and not a state visit.
Francis is scheduled to visit Cuba in September en route to the United States.
After leaving the Vatican, Castro — the brother of Fidel, the revolutionary leader who 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 at a news conference at the office of Italian Premier Matteo Renzi, with whom he met 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 communist country, whose crackdown on dissidents in the past had drawn sharp Vatican criticism.
"I am from the Cuban Communist Party, that doesn't allow [religious] believers, but now we are allowing it, it's an important step," Castro said.
Both of the Castro brothers were baptized as Catholics, but the Church's activities were suppressed for decades after the end of the revolution in 1959. The government began loosening restrictions in the early 1990s. After the late Pope John Paul visited in 1998, Fidel Castro re-instated Christmas as a holiday.
Speaking about Francis, Raul 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 a U.S. government policy of strict isolation of the communist-ruled Caribbean island. On Sunday, Castro stepped up his praise of Francis' push for the two nations to put enmity aside and work toward reconciliation for the benefit of Americans and Cubans.
As he left the Vatican, Castro told journalists, "I thanked the pope for what he did."
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi 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 U.S. "Maybe the [U.S.] Senate will take us off the list of terrorist nations" soon, Castro told reporters.
Francis gave Castro a medal depicting St. Martin of Tours, known for caring for the destitute.
"With his mantle he covers the poor," Francis told Castro, saying more efforts on behalf of the poor are needed.
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. John Paul was also eager for Cuba to grant more visas for foreign priests to bolster the island’s dwindling corps of clergy.
The Vatican's general policy of opposing economic sanctions as a foreign policy tool carries appeal for Cuban leaders and people, after decades under a U.S. economic embargo. With the Vatican keen on protecting the interests of its Catholic followers under Cuban communist rule, Pope Benedict XVI also visited the island.
Castro told reporters that “we are trying to carry forward improvements of our political, social and cultural system. But it's very difficult to do it without causing shocks, without leaving some in the street."
The leader visited Rome on his way back from celebrations in Moscow of the 70th anniversary of the surrender of Nazi Germany in World War II.