Pope Francis marked a personal anniversary Monday — the day as a teenager he decided to become a priest — by pressing a subtle message to Cubans at a delicate point in their history: Overcome ideological preconceptions and be willing to change.
Francis traveled to Cuba's third-largest city, Holguin, and celebrated a Mass where Cuban rhythms mixed with church hymns under a scorching tropical sun. Later, he was scheduled to go to Santiago on Cuba's eastern end before flying Tuesday to Washington for the U.S. leg of his trip to the two former Cold War foes.
Singing children and a small crowd waving Cuban and Vatican flags greeted Francis on arrival, some crying out, "Francis! Holguin is with you!" Holguin's Plaza of the Revolution was packed with thousands of people, many dressed in white to protect themselves from the sun.
Security agents didn't appear to be letting members of the crowd get close to him. On Sunday, an apparent dissident hung on to the popemobile and seemed to be appealing to the pontiff before the man was dragged away.
The head of the opposition group Ladies in White said 22 of 24 members who wanted to attend Francis' Mass on Sunday were prevented from going by Cuban security agents. And two well-known Cuban dissidents said agents detained them after the Vatican invited them to the pope's vespers service at Havana's cathedral.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, confirmed that some dissidents were invited to events to receive a greeting from the pope but said he didn't know why it didn't come to pass.
Asked if the Holy See would lodge an official protest, Lombardi demurred. He stressed that what was planned was just a "passing greeting," not an official meeting, and that it was set up at the last minute out of a "desire to show an attention for everyone, including dissidents."
In his homily Monday, Francis pressed some of the subtle themes he has developed during this delicate balancing act of a visit, telling thousands in Holguin the story of how Jesus picked a lowly and despised tax collector, Matthew, and instructed him to follow him without casting judgment. That experience of mercy changed Matthew forever.
Francis told the Cubans that they, too, should allow themselves "to slowly overcome our preconceptions and our reluctance to think that others, much less ourselves, can change."
"Do you believe it is possible that a tax collector can be a servant?" he asked. "Do you believe it is possible that a traitor can become a friend?"
It was a theme Francis sketched out Sunday night in an off-the-cuff encounter with young people. He encouraged them to dream big about what their life could be like, and not be "boxed in" by ideologies or preconceptions about other people.
"If you are different than me, why don't we talk?" Francis asked the crowd. "Why do we always throw rocks at that which separates us?"
The message comes at a delicate time of change in Cuba as it negotiates normalization of ties with its longtime foe, the United States, and undergoes economic reforms.
The communist country has long defined itself by its rejection of the competition and self-interest that many see as central to life in the U.S. and other developed countries.
Detente with the United States has raised hopes on both sides of the Florida Straits that the millions of families divided by the Cuban revolution will be reunited.
Francis' homily also reflected a very personal story of his own faith and willingness to change.
On Sept. 21, 1953 — 62 years ago Monday — a 17-year-old Jorge Mario Bergoglio went to confession at his parish church in the Flores neighborhood of Buenos Aires. During the confession, he later wrote, he "realized God was waiting for me," and he decided to become a priest.
Bergoglio wouldn't enter the seminary for several more years, but Sept. 21 — the feast of St. Matthew — has remained a crucial reference point for the pope. His motto — Miserando atque eligendo (Having had mercy, he called him) — is inspired by the feast day and the story of Matthew, a sinner who was looked upon with mercy by Jesus and was changed forever.