“An honour. The most important visit of my life”. It was in this way that the President of Cuba, Raúl Modesto Castro Ruz, defined his meeting with Pope Francis on Sunday morning, 10 May, in the study of the Paul VI Hall. The very cordial audience lasted approximately an hour.
On his arrival around 9:30 am the Head of State was welcomed by the Prefect of the Pontifical Household, Archbishop Gänswein. Archbishop Angelo Becciu, Substitute of the Secretariat of State, and Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States, also greeted President Castro.
After Francis welcomed him with a “bienvenido!”, they had a long private meeting in the study. The President — told journalists before leaving the Vatican — that he wanted to thank Francis for his active role in favour of improving relations between Cuba and the United States. He also presented the people of Cuba's emotions surrounding the papal visit planned for September.
Then the Pope and Mr Castro moved to a small nearby hall for the presentation of the delegation of Cuba, which included a dozen people such as the Vice President of the Council of Ministers, Ricardo Cabrisas Ruiz, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bruno Rodríguez, the Ambassador to the Holy See Santa Sede, Rodney López, and the President's relatives.
Also particularly significant was the exchange of gifts. Castro gave the Pope a precious commemorative medal of the Cathedral of Havana — only a few are in existence — and a piece of contemporary art depicting a large cross made of boat wreckage, in front of which is a praying migrant. The work of art was made by the artist Kcho (Alexis Leiva Machado), who was also present at the audience. The work was inspired by Francis' immense effort to turn the world's attention to the problems of migrants and of refugees. The Pontiff offered a copy of the his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium and a St Martin's medal which depicts the saint covering the poor with his cloak. The Pope willingly gave the President this gift because it represents the duty to help and protect the poor, in addition to promoting dignity.
A little after 10:30 President Castro and the delegation left the Vatican, heading to Palazzo Chigi where he met with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. After the two held a press conference, during which the Cuban President, speaking about his meeting with Francis explained that he was very much moved by “his wisdom and modesty, and all his virtues. I read all the Pope's speeches”, he added, “and if he continues this way, I will return to the Catholic Church. I'm not joking”. Meanwhile Renzi spoke about relations between Cuba and the United States, ascertaining that “much is changing”.
Archbishop Becciu also commented on the audience. As Apostolic Nuncio in Cuba from 2009-2011, the Archbishop spoke about the diplomatic work between the U.S. and Cuba with Corriere della Sera on Monday, 11 May. “The Secretariat of State, especially Cardinal Parolin, gave his best interpreting the directions of the Pope. If can be said that certain results are not achieved overnight, then I agree that over the course of decades Vatican diplomacy played a tenacious and patient role. The breakthrough is also thanks to Cardinal Ortega and the Cuban bishops”.
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