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Live a life of service to others and not to ideology. That was the message delivered by Pope Francis in Cuba yesterday. He spoke during mass in Havana's historic Revolution Plaza. The pope then met privately with Cuba's former leader, Fidel Castro. NPR's Carrie Kahn is in the Cuban capital.
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CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Thousands traveled from around the country, Latin America and the U.S. to hear Pope Francis celebrate mass in the capital's outdoor plaza, which is surrounded by monuments and statues of Cuba's revolutionary figures. Marisol Viera of Havana just focused on the pope.
MARISOL VIERA: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "I feel so privileged, happy and blessed to be here," she said before returning to singing and praying.
VIERA: (Singing in Spanish).
KAHN: Many in the crowd shared her religious zeal. Others obligated to attend were issued numbered badges and wore free caps emblazoned with the Cuban flag. Three people were arrested at the mass as they tried to distribute fliers, and as many as 40 opponents of the regime were rounded up in recent days. Seventy-five-year-old Angelica Perez Marin walked from her capital neighborhood to the plaza. She says Francis is more special than the other two popes, John Paul II and Benedict, who have also visited the communist nation.
ANGELICA PEREZ MARIN: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: Colloquially, Perez says the pope calls it like it is. He doesn't mince words, and he didn't during his homily. In what is being interpreted as a swipe at the current regime, Francis urged Cubans to serve one another and not ideologies.
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POPE FRANCIS: (Foreign language spoken).
KAHN: He ended saying, whoever does not live to serve does not serve to live. Austen Ivereigh who has just written a biography of Pope Francis says such bold proclamations are par for the course for this pontiff.
AUSTEN IVEREIGH: What is he doing? He's doing what popes traditionally do. He's bringing down walls. He's building bridges. He's opening doors. In a way, the Florida Straits is, to this pontificate, what the Berlin Wall was to the pontificate of John Paul II.
KAHN: Francis, who helped broker historic talks between the U.S. and Cuba last year, called the two countries' reconciliation a model for the world. The pope also paid a visit to former Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Francis gave him some papal writings while in return the 89-year-old Castro handed the pope some of his published opinions on religion.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Spanish).
KAHN: But while some probe the pope's words for political proclamations, many were content with his religious messages, like this Catholic youth group from Havana.
LEONARDO DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: Fifteen-year-old Leonardo Diaz says, "the most important thing the pope said here in Cuba is that we need to help each other," a sentiment the pope reiterated in lengthy off-the-cuff remarks speaking to youth and Cuban priests and nuns later in the afternoon where he also warned of the temptations of wealth. That's a concern of many here. Modest reforms that now allow Cubans to own private property and run businesses has led to a growing income gap.
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FRANCIS: (Foreign language spoken).
KAHN: "Love poverty like a mother," the pope told the crowd. Deciphering all of Francis's messages and just who is the target of his comments has been a challenge during the pope's stay in Cuba. Mari Lannamann from Connecticut agrees. But for her, she says the trip has been a personal journey. She came here with her Cuban-born mother who left the country as a child. Both are hoping Cuba's leaders heed the pope's words.
MARI LANNAMANN: I'm eager to see how things are going to change.
KAHN: And, she says, watch what she hopes will be his Cuba's historical transformation. The pope now moves on to two more towns in Cuba's rural provinces. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Havana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.