The Last Pope To Vist Cuba Was John Paul II & Pope Francis' Visit Follows In His Footsteps

Before his much-anticipated visit to the United States, Pope Francis stopped in Cuba over the weekend, marking his first papal trip to the Caribbean nation. While there, the pontiff, who's known for his strong anti-capitalist beliefs, met with Fidel Castro, the dictator who served as Cuba's prime minister and president until 2008. Francis also held a meeting with Castro's brother and current Cuban president, Raul Castro, at the main government building in Havana. It was the second time the pontiff met with Raul Castro, having been introduced to him earlier this year at the Vatican.

The pontiff's Cuba visit was perhaps less controversial than most predicted it would be. While Francis may be a critic of capitalism and the free-market economy, he is also staunchly opposed to communism. But in Havana, he stayed away from addressing Cuba's long-held form of government head-on. The pontiff did, however, talk about the recently-renewed relations between the United States and Cuba — something he'd know all about, considering how he played a key role in negotiating meetings between the two nations. At a ceremony shortly after the papal plane touched down in Cuba, he said:

It is a sign of the victory of the culture of encounter and dialogue, the system of universal growth over the forever-dead system of groups and dynasties. 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.
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Following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Francis held Mass in Havana's Revolution Square, where Fidel Castro often addressed his nation. There, he seemed to take a stance against Cuba's communist influence, warning against "service" that's ideological. "We do not serve ideas, we serve people," the pontiff said.

Francis' trip to Cuba seems like a natural progression for the Catholic Church, which reopened its relationship with the country in the 1990s. In 1998, Pope John Paul II became the first pope to visit Cuba. John Paul II was one of the biggest foes of communism — a sentiment no doubt fueled by life under communist rule in Poland — and declared in Cuba in 1998: "freedom, mutual trust, social justice and lasting peace." While that visit was groundbreaking and reintroduced the Catholic Church to Cuba, the friction between John Paul II and Fidel Castro was evident. The two leaders went back and forth on their ideologies, with Castro attempting to align his revolutionary ideals with the Church's teachings.

Although John Paul II may have been wary about Cuba's political system, the pontiff was perhaps the first person to thaw relations between the United States and Cuba. “May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba," John Paul II said in Havana at the time. Francis has now built on that foundation set by his predecessor. And so far, it's working out.