03/27/2012 10:19 EDT | Updated 05/27/2012 05:12 EDT

Pope's visit sparks blessing-Castro rumours

The visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Cuba has brought thousands of Cuban Americans back to the island and is raising speculation that Fidel Castro may rejoin the church before he dies.

Benedict was to fly to Havana later today to meet with President Raul Castro and possibly his older brother Fidel, though that had not been confirmed. Fidel, 85, has been out of the limelight since 2006, when he suddenly became ill and nearly died. The nature of his illness remains a state secret.

Adding to speculation about religion and dictators, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is in Havana undergoing radiation therapy for cancer, the CBC's Latin America correspondent Connie Watson reported from Havana.

Chavez didn't ask for an audience with the Pope, but would be welcome to attend Mass in the capital's Revolution Square on Wednesday, a Vatican spokesman said

Many Cuban Americans are flying in from New York and especially Miami, where anti-Castro sentiment is the strongest. Watson reported.

The Castro brothers were educated by Jesuits, and the rumour in Havana is that Fidel may be returning to his Catholic roots and asking the Pope for the "last rites," a set of sacraments to prepare a dying person's soul for death.

With Chavez in town, speculation is the Venezuelan leader, who is battling cancer, has come to ask for the Pope's blessing. In other words, Watson said, and the older revolutionary is asking for a proper goodbye, the younger one is asking to stay a little longer in this world.

Father John Szczepanik, who is visiting from New Jersey, laughed at the speculation.

"I did hear the rumour, but of course rumours are rumours, and in light of the Catholic Church's teaching, we are not supposed to support rumours," he told CBC News.

"What happens during the meeting, of course, will be known only to the Pope and to Fidel Castro, unless any of them decides to reveal the content of that conversation."

With such a long history of secrecy — in both the Vatican and Castro's regime —— no one is expecting the real story anytime soon, Watson said.

Under a light rain late Monday, Benedict emphasized family and faith during a Mass celebrated before Raul Castro and tens of thousands of people including Cuban-Americans on a pilgrimage to the communist-run island.

"I appeal to you to reinvigorate your faith … that you may strive to build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity," he said in a country where Roman Catholics now account for 10 per cent of the population.

Aides held a white umbrella over the pontiff as worshippers approached to take communion, and Castro climbed the stairs to congratulate the Pope when the Mass ended.

The 84-year-old pontiff's voice sounded tired and he seemed exhausted by the end of the day after a vigorous four days of travel. The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, acknowledged Benedict's fatigue but said his health was fine.

Just before the ceremony began, a man tried to enter an area reserved for foreign journalists shouting anti-government slogans such as "Down with the Revolution! Down with the dictatorship!" He was led away by security agents. It was not clear who he was or what happened to him. The government did not comment.

Military band, honour guard

Benedict's trip to Cuba comes 14 years after Pope John Paul II's historic tour, when the Polish pontiff who helped bring down communism in his homeland admonished Fidel Castro to free prisoners of conscience, end abortion and let the Roman Catholic Church take its place in society.

The Pope arrived in the afternoon in Santiago to an airport reception that included a military band, an honour guard, a gaggle of robed clergy, President Raul Castro and cabinet ministers.

Benedict gently pressed the longtime Communist leaders to push through the reforms desired by their people, while also criticizing the excesses of capitalism. His words were subtle and appeared to take into account the liberalizing reforms that Raul Castro has enacted since taking over as president from his older brother in 2006 and the greater role the Catholic Church has played in Cuban affairs, most recently in negotiating the release of dozens of political prisoners.

The pontiff, who before starting his trip in Mexico said Marxism "no longer responds to reality," said he hoped his visit would inspire and encourage Cubans on the island and beyond.

"I carry in my heart the just aspirations and legitimate desires of all Cubans, wherever they may be," he said. "Those of the young and the elderly, of adolescents and children, of the sick and workers, of prisoners and their families, and of the poor and those in need."

'Duty to share'

Castro told Benedict his country is committed to freedom of faith and has good relations with religious institutions. He also criticized the 50-year U.S. economic embargo and defended the socialist ideal of providing for those less fortunate.

"We have confronted scarcity but have never failed in our duty to share with those who have less," Castro said, adding that Cuba remains determined to chart its own path and resist efforts by "the most forceful power that history has ever known" — a reference to the United States — to thwart the island's socialist model.

Benedict then travelled by popemobile into Santiago, Cuba's second city, barely waving through the glass to onlookers who lined the streets and waved flags.

"I thought this was amazing. This was such a labour of love and faith," said Rita Freixas, a Miami Beach resident who hadn't visited Cuba since her family left when she was a year old. She travelled back to the island with her sons and a friend as part of a delegation organized by the Archdiocese of Miami. "I am so happy to be back here. I am so happy to have come."

Tuesday was scheduled to be a day relatively light on public appearances by Benedict.

Humble, air-conditioned

Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski planned to celebrate a Mass in the afternoon in the Havana cathedral in the picturesque historic colonial quarter.

Late Monday, Benedict bedded down in a humble but air-conditioned house constructed in recent weeks with $86,000 in church funds, made of reinforced concrete designed to withstand a magnitude-8 earthquake.

It was just 200 metres from the El Cobre sanctuary, where he planned a private, spiritual moment Tuesday morning paying homage to the statue of the Virgin of Charity. Its 400th anniversary was cited as a main reason why Benedict chose to visit Cuba this year.

Just over 35 centimetres tall, the wooden statue is one of the most powerful Catholic icons in the world, and an object of pride and reverence for hundreds of thousands in Cuba. It was taken to Monday's Mass on the top of a truck to the joy of the faithful present.

"She is a beauty, the most extraordinary thing," Mercy Serra said as the statue made its way through the crowd. "She is the mother of all Cubans."