Pope Francis’ approach to the communist regime in Cuba, and particularly its former revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, is receiving some mixed and bemused reactions.

But an exchange between a curial cardinal and Fidel back in the 2000s may provide some clue behind the Pope’s seeming affinity with Castro and the regime, and vice-versa.

Concerns have been raised that, on arrival in Havana, the Pope expressed his “sentiments of particular respect and consideration” towards Fidel who had been heavily criticized for human rights abuses throughout his political life.

The Pope spent half an hour in a “familiar and informal” meeting with the Jesuit-educated former dictator yesterday, offering him gifts including several CD's, copies of his two encyclicals, Lumen Fidei and Laudato Si, and books by an Italian priest called Alessandro Pronzato and a Spanish Jesuit Armando Llorente.

According to the Guardian, the Pope also gave him a book on humor and religion – perhaps as a way to broach the topic lightly. Many have speculated that the self-confessed atheist would one day return to the Catholic faith of his childhood.

The Pope has offered some criticism of the regime during his visit so far. On arrival in Havana on Saturday, he said the recent Holy See-brokered detente between the US and Cuba is a sign of “’the system of universal growth’ over “the forever-dead system of groups and dynasties.’”

At Mass on Sunday, he warned against ideology and called instead on serving others. “This caring for others out of love is not about being servile,” Francis said. “Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people.”

Still, the Pope’s softly-softly approach noticeably contrasts with that of Pope St. John Paul II who, during his 1998 visit to the island nation, called for reform and the release of political prisoners while also condemning US attempts to isolate the country. "A modern state cannot make atheism or religion one of its political ordinances," he said bluntly.

Some Cuban human rights activists are looking wistfully on Francis’ predecessor, whose more direct approach, in contrast to the more dialogue-based Ostpolitik of Blessed Paul VI, helped lead to the downfall of Soviet communism.

Much of this affinity no doubt has to do with Francis' clear sympathy for some Marxists even if he disagrees with the ideology (he once said he has met many "who are good people"). The Cuban hierarchy's approach to the regime is also an important factor. 

But an exchange between Cardinal Renato Martino and Fidel Castro in the 2000s also partly shows why Francis, the Holy See — and Benedict XVI, too, to a large extent — have stressed more dialogue than condemnation when it comes to dealing with the Cuban regime.

Meeting Fidel during a visit to the country as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Cardinal Martino presented the former communist revolutionary with a copy of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church that his dicastery had just produced.

“He responded with some surprise,” Cardinal Martino, now honorary president of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, told me. “Castro said that in his view, much of the teaching it contained was identical to what he and his regime had been trying to apply to Cuban society for years!”