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Pope Francis blesses city of Holguín from the Hill of the Cross

Pope Francis leads a Mass for Catholic faithful

Pope Francis leads a Mass for Catholic faithful in the city of Holguin, Cuba on Monday, Sept. 21, 2015. Credit: EPA / Alejandro Bolivar

HOLGUÍN, CUBA - Pope Francis Monday afternoon departed Cuba's interior city, where he celebrated a morning Mass, presented a chalice to the people and blessed their city from the Hill of the Cross.

He waved as he boarded an Alitalia plane about 4:30 p.m. for the coastal city of Santiago, his last stop on a historic visit to the Caribbean country before coming to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday afternoon.

Francis blessed the city from Loma de la Cruz, the site of a distinctive wooden cross that overlooks Holguín.

He is the first pope to visit the city of 300,000, and his trip had been much-anticipated. He was welcomed through a semirural area where thousands lined the roadway waving colorful flags and cheering the pontiff.

Monday was the second full day of a nine-day trip that began in Cuba and concludes in the United States.

His message at morning Mass, attended by an estimated 150,000, was one of humility, emphasizing the importance of change and the ability to return to the Catholic Church.

He spoke in front of a red backdrop in the Plaza of the Revolution and drew on a gospel focused on the apostle Matthew, initially a despised tax collector who took money from the Jews to give to the Romans until he accepted Jesus' invitation to follow him.

"For Matthew and for all who have felt the gaze of Jesus, other people are no longer to be 'lived-off,' used and abused," the pope said. "The gaze of Jesus gives rise to missionary activity, service, self-giving. Jesus' love heals our shortsightedness and pushes us to look beyond, not to be satisfied with appearances or with what is politically correct."

The pope went on to talk about transformation in one's own life.

"Do you believe it is possible that a traitor can become a friend? Do you believe it is possible that the son of a carpenter can be the Son of God?"

"Let us gaze upon the Lord in prayer, in the Eucharist, in Confession, in our brothers and sisters, especially those who feel excluded or abandoned," he later said. "May we learn to see them as Jesus sees us."

He praised the efforts of the church in Cuba in bringing Catholicism to all people, even in remote areas, while noting the shortage of priests and churches in the country. He emphasized the church's importance in the community.

Many in the crowd at Mass had begun arriving at midnight and spent the night in anticipation of Francis' arrival.

Yaima Gonzalez Castillo, 32, said she had traveled 560 miles to see the pope. She went from her home in Pinar del Río in western Cuba to Havana for the pope's Mass on Sunday, then on to Holguín.

"It's something that you rarely see," she said in Spanish, referring to a papal visit. Plus, "he's a pope from the Americas. He has progressive ideas for us."

Dozens of people were carried into Red Cross tents on stretchers, having fainted or having felt dizzy from the heat during Mass.

People sought to escape the intense tropical sun any way they could -- standing in the shade underneath trees, holding up umbrellas, wearing floppy hats. One man even fashioned a triangular hat out of a newspaper.

Yet so many were enthralled.

"He's doing something very good, he's fighting for unity, for peace, for tranquillity," Marina Rabi, 75, said in Spanish.

She said she arrived at 6 a.m. and spent hours waiting in the sun for the pope, without complaint.

The day marked a personal anniversary for Francis: It was 62 years ago on Monday that 17-year-old Jorge Mario Bergoglio decided to become a priest. He had gone 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 decided to become a priest. He didn't enter the seminary for several years more, but Sept. 21 -- the feast of St. Matthew -- has always been a key date for him.

After celebrating Mass at the Plaza of the Revolution, Pope Francis changed out of his vestments and walked through the crowd, stopping to greet and speak with people in the audience. During his exit, a choir dressed in white pants and red or blue collared shirts and straw hats sang vibrantly. He rode through streets as even more people reached their hands out toward him.

He was also scheduled to have lunch with Bishop Emilio Aranguren Echeverria after the Mass.

He was to end the visit in Holquín by praying to the Virgen de la Caridad at the Minor Basilica of the Shrine to Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre -- Cuba's patron saint.

In Santiago, he will meet with bishops at St. Basil The Great Seminary.

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