HAVANA (Reuters) - Pope Benedict and Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, both octogenarians, joked about their age in a brief meeting on Wednesday and then Castro popped the question: so what do you do?
The two world figures chatted for about 30 minutes at the Vatican embassy in Havana near the end of the pope’s three-day visit to Cuba, where he called for greater freedom and a bigger role for the Catholic Church in the communist-led nation.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said Benedict, 84, and Castro, 85, had an “exchange of ideas” in a “very cordial” atmosphere.
Castro led a 1959 revolution and transformed the Caribbean island into a communist state, ruling it for 49 years before stepping down due to poor health in 2008. Under his rule, Cuba for years called itself an atheist state, although relations with the Church have improved over the past two decades.
Castro arrived for his meeting with the pope on Wednesday in a green Mercedes SUV amid heavy security that included armed guards in a phalanx of surrounding black Mercedes cars.
He was helped out by two assistants, who supported him as he walked slowly up the steps into the stately white building where Benedict spent Tuesday night and where Pope John Paul II stayed during his landmark 1998 visit.
“What does a pope do?” Castro asked Benedict, who is just one year his junior. The pontiff told him of his ministry, his foreign trips and his service to the Church, saying he was happy to be in Cuba and with the welcome he received.
Dressed in a dark Reebok track suit and wearing a scarf despite the searing heat outside, Castro told the pontiff he had watched his whole visit on television. Two of his children were also presented to the pope.
Castro handed the reins of power to his younger brother, President Raul Castro, four years ago and he has since largely retired from government but he still writes columns and meets with visiting leaders. He told the pontiff he was spending most of his time reading and reflecting on the state of the world.
His columns are posted on the internet and read aloud on state television, and cover his fears of impending Armageddon, the evils of consumerism and his criticisms of arch ideological foe, the United States.
Castro questioned Benedict about changes in Church liturgy and asked the pope to send him a book to help him reflect. The pope said he would think of which one to send, but had not yet decided, Lombardi said.
The pair discussed the difficult world situation and the problems of mankind from a religious, scientific and cultural point of view.
And the pope also spoke to Castro about the problem of the absence of God in much of society today and the relationship between faith and reason.
As he was waiting for the pope, Castro said he had great admiration for Mother Teresa and for John Paul, whose visit 14 years ago marked a watershed in long-strained relations between the communist government and the Church.
Castro reinstated Christmas as a holiday ahead of John Paul’s visit, and in talks on Tuesday with Raul Castro, the pope asked the government to consider also making Good Friday, the day Christians commemorate Christ’s death, a national holiday.
Writing by Jeff Franks and Simon Gardner; Editing by Kieran Murray