Cuban president says Pope has inspired him to pray

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Cuban president Raul Castro and Pope Francis 

 

Cuban President Raul Castro says that he is considering joining the Catholic church after meeting with Pope Francis on Sunday.

Raul said he was so impressed that with the pope that “I will go back to praying and go back to the church, and I’m not joking.”

Castro had paid a call Sunday on Pope Francis at the Vatican to thank him for helping to restore diplomatic relations between the two countries.

“Bienvenido (welcome)!” Francis said in his native Spanish, welcoming Castro to his studio near the Vatican public audience hall.

The 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, as the Argentine-born Francis and Castro spoke in Spanish.

Francis will 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, whom he met with after the Vatican talks.

Pope Francis welcomes Cuban President Raul Castro during a private audience at the Vatican, Sunday,  …

“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.

Speaking about Francis, 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 U.S. government policy of strict isolation of the Communist-ruled Caribbean island. On Sunday, he stepped up his praise on Francis’ push for the two nations to put enmity aside and work for reconciliation for the benefit of Americans and Cubans.

Pope Francis talks with Cuban President Raul Castro during a private audience at the Vatican, Sunday …

As he took his leave from 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 United States. “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.

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