On his second day in Cuba, Pope Francis swapped books with the country’s former leader Fidel Castro during a brief meeting Sunday, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said.
The meeting, at Castro’s home, came after the pontiff delivered Cuba's largest papal mass ever — an estimated 200,000 people were attendance — at Havana's Revolution Square on Sunday morning, Lombardi said.
Francis gave Castro copies of his two encyclicals, Lombardi said, as well as two books written by an Italian priest and one by a Jesuit priest.
Castro, 89, then gave Francis a book titled “Fidel and Religion.” Castro's wife, children and grandchildren were present at the meeting.
Later Sunday, while Francis was "privately" meeting with Castro’s brother, Cuban president Raúl Castro, the pair exchanged gifts, Lombardi said. From the pope, there was a Vatican-made mosaic. From the Cuban president, there was a "composition" built from the oars of migrant boats, a gift "inspired by Francis’ great attention to the plight of migrants," Lombardi said.
Afterwards, in a discussion with young people at a cultural center in Havana, the pope ditched his prepared comments, urging the group to "dream big" and to beware of rigid ideologies that stifle communication.
"The world is being destroyed by war because we’re incapable of talking," he said. "When there’s division, there’s death. We’re killing our ability to unify. We’re killing the 'social friendship.' I ask you, let’s be able to build social friendship."
Francis is the third pope to visit the communist country in 17 years. Like his predecessors, he will not meet with dissidents. But that's not for lack of trying, Lombardi said. The had pope wanted to "greet" them without having a "specific initiative" planned, he said, adding that there is "a desire to manifest attention towards everyone, also to the dissidents."
The greeting, however, "did not take place," Lombardi said. "I don’t have specific information on this situation."
"For some months now, we have witnessed an event which fills us with hope: the process of normalizing relations between two peoples following years of estrangement," Francis said on the tarmac of Jose Marti International Airport, the AP reported.
"I urge political leaders to persevere on this path and to develop all its potentialities as a proof of the high service which they are called to carry out on behalf of the peace and well-being of their peoples, of all America, and as an example of reconciliation for the entire world."
Tim Stelloh is a reporter for NBC News, based in California.