Pope Francis presented Fidel Castro with a link to the past Sunday: poems by a Jesuit teacher forced to flee Cuba after his one-time student -- the now-ailing Marxist icon -- led a revolution.
In their 40-minute meeting, Castro gave the pope a personal yet political gift in return: a book of Castro's interviews about Marxism and theology.
Castro's wife, children and grandchildren also attended the meeting on a day when his brother, Cuban president Raúl Castro, met with the pontiff and earlier the pope declared the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba a model of reconciliation for the world.
The poems were penned by a Jesuit priest who escaped Cuba in 1959 after Fidel Castro took power.
The gift, said Francis biographer Austen Ivereigh, appeared to be a subtle message "inviting Fidel Castro to come to terms with his past."
Fidel Castro's gift to the pope, "Fidel and Religion: Castro Talks on Revolution and Religion With Frei Betto," contains a series of interviews the Cuban revolutionary did with Betto, a Brazilian priest.
Before meeting with Raúl Castro at the Palace of the Revolution -- Havana's seat of government -- Francis thanked him for a warm welcome and pardons of 3,522 prisoners convicted of minor crimes.
"I want to thank you . . . the fact that in your speech you've cited things that really send a signal of . . . warmth," the pope told the Cuban president in an informal greeting. "I also want to thank you for the pardons."
Francis served as a mediator during months of secret negotiations that led to the resumption of relations between the United States and Cuba. Saturday night, the pope pressed for more progress in a speech on the tarmac of Jose Marti International Airport soon after landing in Cuba.
"For some months now, we have witnessed an event which fills us with hope: the process of normalizing relations between two peoples following years of estrangement," Francis said. "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."
Raúl Castro also came bearing gifts. He gave the pontiff a huge crucifix made of oars and a painting of the Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, Cuba's patron saint.
Artist May Antonio Perez Garcia, 45, came to the Mass despite being an atheist.
It was momentous, he said, because it was the third time communist Cuba has allowed a pope to speak here -- Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II also visited.
"The government of Cuba is finally showing signs of intelligence and recognizing it has committed many errors, as much in the area of religion as in the politics between the United States and Cuba," he said.