By Elise Harris
While Pope Francis is in Cuba next week chances are high that he will meet with former president Fidel Castro, though no specific time has been set, Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi has announced.
Anticipating questions on whether a meeting between the Pope and the former Cuban president would happen, Fr. Lombardi said that “in all likelihood it’s very predictable that it will happen, clearly during the day in Havana.”
However, he stressed that it hasn’t put in the schedule at a specific time, “so we have to see when is easier, or when it’s possible to organize it. But it’s very likely that it will happen.”
“The desire has also been expressed by the State, also when President Raul Castro came here to Rome, so it’s quite normal.”
Fr. Lombardi made his comments during a Sept. 15 press briefing on the Pope’s upcoming trip to Cuba and the United States.
Pope Francis will arrive at the Cuban capital of Havana this Saturday, Sept. 19, where he will receive an official welcome. The next morning he is set to meet with Raul Castro, current Cuban president and younger brother to Fidel, leader of Cuba’s communist revolution.
He will travel to Holguín Sept. 21, where he will celebrate Mass and bless the city before flying to Santiago that evening. He departs from Santiago at 12:30 p.m. on the 22nd, and is scheduled to land in Washington D.C. at 4 p.m. local time.
Raul Castro met with Francis at the Vatican May 10, where the two spoke about the Pope’s role in bettering relations between Cuba and the United States. They also spoke of Francis’ visit to Cuba, which falls directly ahead of his week-long trip to the United States.
Last fall Pope Francis helped to broker improved relations between Cuba and the United States, culminating in the full restoration of diplomatic ties after 50 years of strained relations.
After their May meeting, Castro thanked the Pope “for his active role in the development of the improvement of relations between Cuba and the United States of America.”
He also suggested he could return to the Church in the future. “I will start praying again and return to the Church” if the Pope continues what he has been doing, Raul Castro said.
Fr. Lombardi also announced during the press briefing that Pope Francis will administer First Communion to five children during Sunday’s Mass in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución.
The Pope giving First Communions is a first for him on a trip abroad, the spokesman said, noting that it serves as a sign “of hope and growth” for Church in Cuba.
Lombardi also noted how the Pope’s visit Monday to Santiago’s shrine for Our Lady of Charity falls during the 100th anniversary of the letter sent to Pope Benedict XV by veterans of the Cuban war for independence, asking him to declare her Patroness of Cuba. This detail, he said, makes the visit more significant for the Cuban people.
A press conference during the 3.5 hour flight from Cuba to the United States is also a possibility, he said, but stressed that it will be done only if it’s possible, and if the Pope agrees.
Pope Francis lands in Washington D.C. the evening of Sept. 23, where he will be welcomed by President Obama, the First Lady and likely their two children. He will speak to them and U.S. authorities in English the next morning.
Following his private meeting with the president, Francis will speak with the more than 400 bishops of the U.S., giving them a general speech before heading to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where he will canonize Bl. Junipero Serra.
Francis will address the U.S. Congress Sept. 24 around 10a.m. in English, which Fr. Lombardi said will be an opportunity for him to speak to all U.S. citizens, “not just the Catholics.”
The Pope’s visit to the headquarters of the United Nations in New York the following morning will take place in Spanish, the spokesman said, and will be followed by an interreligious gathering at Ground Zero.
Pope Francis’ visit to the site of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks will be different than that of Benedict XVI when he went in 2008, he said, because since then the memorial and museum have been finished.
Fr. Lombardi stressed that the fundamental character of the Pope’s visit to Ground Zero is the interreligious encounter set to take place there, adding that “the ecumenical, interreligious moment of the trip is at Ground Zero.”
Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. will culminate with his participation in the Philadelphia World Meeting of Families, which is expected to draw large crowds, especially for Francis’ closing Mass Sept. 27.