Pope and Patriarch Kirill hold meeting in Cuba

Francis said that his deepest desire for his trip to Mexico is to pray before the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The Pope arrived in Cuba. (Photo: AP)
English 12/02/2016 14:23 AP Havana Actualizada 14:38
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Pope Francis is meeting with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, in a historic development in the 1,000-year-old schism that divided Christianity.

Francis and Kirill embraced and kissed one another three times on the cheek as they met in a wood-paneled VIP room at the Havana airport. It was the first time a pope and Russian patriarch had ever met.

The Vatican sees the meeting as an important new step in its ecumenical efforts, but many Orthodox observers see Kirill's willingness to sit down with a pope as more an attempt to assert Russia and Russian Orthodoxy at a time when Moscow is being isolated by the West.

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church brought supportive words for Cuban leader Raúl Castro ahead of the patriarch's landmark Friday encounter with Pope Francis.

Russian news agencies reported from Havana that Patriarch Kirill told Castro that the Cuban people "have proved their right to live in the way they believe is fit."

Russia's state RIA Novosti news agency quotes him as saying that "heroism is a spiritual concept that cannot be learned from books. It derives from man's spiritual life."

Pope Francis previously said that his deepest desire for his trip to Mexico is to simply pray before the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Speaking to reporters en route to his first stop in Havana, Francis said he knew that the Virgin is beloved to Catholics and even those who are not.

"This mystery that they study, study, and there are no human explanations," he said. "The most scientific study says this is something of God. This is what I'll tell the Mexicans, even those who say 'I'm atheist but I'm a Guadalupano.' - Then he corrected himself: "Some Mexicans. Not all are atheists."

Francis arrives in Mexico Friday afternoon and he's due to celebrate Mass in the Basilica of Guadalupe on Saturday evening. The trip to Mexico runs through Wednesday.

The popes always receive gifts on their foreign visits, and Francis is no different, getting a sombrero, some chocolate chip cookies and a single white rose, which has significance for him. But Noel Díaz's gift as the pope was flying to Cuba and Mexico was particularly heartfelt.

Díaz runs a Catholic TV station in Los Angeles that covers migration issues closely. He told the pope that as a child growing up poor in Tijuana, his single mother didn't have enough money to buy him a new outfit when he made his First Communion. So at age 7, Díaz started shining shoes on the streets of Tijuana to earn enough to buy a new shirt and pants.

On Friday, Díaz gave Francis a custom-made shoeshine kit, "in memory of all those who work hard every day ... those who get up in the morning and do anything to put bread on the table," Díaz said.

And then he bent down and shined Francis' shoe.

Francis inscribed a book Díaz had brought: "Thank you for your example. And please pray for me."

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