There was the pope, celebrating Mass before an audience filled with committed atheists. Across the plaza, there was the towering image of Che Guevara, urging his fellow revolutionaries to march always toward victory.
After the Mass, the pope met with Fidel Castro at the Vatican Embassy, where the ailing former leader quizzed Benedict about the changes in the Catholic liturgy since the long-ago days when Fidel was an altar boy, educated by Jesuits.
According to a Vatican spokesman, the pope raised issues of freedom and liberty with Castro. The Vatican described the meeting as “intense” but “cordial.”
The Mass was attended by President Raul Castro, who sat in the front row surrounded by high-ranking government officials as the pope delivered a sermon warning against those who “close themselves up in their own truth and try to impose it on others.”
The pontiff said that such sinners are driven by “irrationality and fanaticism” and that they are “like the blind scribes who, upon seeing Jesus beaten and bloody, cry out furiously, ‘Crucify him!’ ”
In that passage, the pope did not mention Cuba or its government, and it was left to the audience here and around the globe to interpret the message.
If it was a dig at the current leadership, as some analysts suggested afterward, the point was lost on many in the crowd.
Based on interviews after the Mass, most people did not think the pope was talking about the Castro brothers or their socialist revolution. Indeed, many in the audience had never attended church and did not understand the use of parables.
“It was a speech about love and the unity of all Cubans,” said Yoan Danilo, a student from the elite University of Computer Sciences, who said he was not a believer.
“I think it was beautiful, a message of solidarity with the Cuban people,” said Juana Ramirez Gomez, who, like many in the crowd, said she was an atheist but had come out of respect for the pope as a head of state and a messenger of peace.
Some of those who filled the sunny square said they came to the Mass because their employers, teachers or neighborhood party organizers required attendance and were taking a roll call.
At the edges of the crowd, some young people lounged on the ground, yawning, smoking or talking during the service. After the homily, midway through the Mass, people began to head for the exits in a steady stream.
For some reason, cellphone service in Havana was interrupted during the Mass. Some of Havana’s dissidents told the Associated Press that their members had been detained.