VATICAN CITY — Following a private meeting at the Vatican with Pope Francis, who has helped to broker improved relations between Cuba and the United States, the president of the Caribbean nation 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 on Sunday.
Castro is president of Cuba and the younger brother of Fidel, the leader of Cuba's communist revolution. He spoke to the press a few hours after his meeting with Pope Francis.
The Cuban leader also said he was impressed with the Pope’s “wisdom and modesty,” adding that he reads all of his speeches.
The May 10 meeting was the first between the two leaders, ahead of Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to the island nation.
According to a statement released by the Holy See Press Office after the meeting, Castro “wished to say, ‘Thank you’ to the Holy Father for his active role in the development of the improvement of relations between Cuba and the United States of America.”
Castro also “presented the sentiments of the Cuban people to the Pope as they await in preparation for the coming visit to the island in the month of September,” the statement read.
While the Vatican qualified the visit as “strictly private,” the Holy See released some details of the meeting in the statement.
Castro arrived at the Vatican at 9:30am from Russia, where he had participated in a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe.
The two leaders met for about 50 minutes and spoke of the Pope’s work in bettering relations between Cuba and the United States. They also spoke of the Pope’s upcoming visit of Cuba ahead of his trip to the United States, which will include the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia and the canonization of Blessed Junipero Serra in Washington.
The Vatican announced Pope Francis' September trip to Cuba on April 22.
Castro was accompanied by a 10-person delegation, including the president of Cuba’s Council of Ministers, his exterior minister and the Cuban ambassador to the Holy See.
As is customary, the Pope and the president exchanged gifts. Castro gave Pope Francis a silver medal commemorating the 200 years since the cathedral of Havana was built. It is one of only 25 of the medals in existence.
Castro also gave the Pope a work of contemporary art by Cuban artist Kcho, who was part of the delegation. The piece is a large cross composed of pieces from shipwrecked boats, with the image of an immigrant praying in front of it.
Kcho explained to the Pope that the work “was inspired by his commitment to calling the world’s attention to the problems of migrants and those who are forced to flee their homes, starting with his famous trip to Lampedusa” in July 2013.
In return, Pope Francis gave Castro a copy of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium and a large medallion that shows St. Martin of Tours sharing his cloak with a poor person.
He told Castro the gift “is an intuition of that which we must do: cover the misery of our people and then promote the people [and their well-being].”
The Holy Father added that he “wanted to give it to him because it is a sign of goodwill.”
After the audience with Pope Francis, Castro met with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, after which he spoke to the press about the meeting.
Last December, Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama announced to the world that they would be taking steps to normalize their diplomatic relations and surprised many in thanking and praising the work of Pope Francis.
Castro also met with Benedict XVI on March 27, 2012, during his trip to the Caribbean nation, and St. John Paul II was the first pope to receive then-Cuban President Fidel Castro in 1996. Two years later, he made his own historic visit to Cuba.