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Pope in Cuba: A simple country priest

Pope Francis kisses a boy as he arrives

Pope Francis kisses a boy as he arrives to give a morning Mass at the Calixto Garcia square in Holguin, in eastern Cuba, on Monday, Sept. 21, 2015. Credit: Getty Images / Tony Gentile

He'll soon be addressing Congress and the United Nations, but for now Pope Francis has been content on his journey to come across like a humble country priest who talks about the faith as everyday people experience it.

"The pope is very much attuned and sensitive to the idea of a lived religion, how people actually practice their belief," said Joseph Sciorra, author of "Built with Faith: Italian American Imagination and Catholic Material Culture in New York City."

For Cuban Catholics, the emotional heart of that "lived religion" can be found in the shrine to Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, which Francis visited Monday night and where he was to celebrate Mass this morning before flying to Washington, D.C., later in the day.

On Monday morning, he referred to the Virgin of Cobre in his homily at Mass in the Plaza of the Revolution in Holguín and also spoke of Jesus as a font of mercy whose gaze changed the heart of the greedy tax collector Matthew.

His style of engagement came through on Sunday evening when he departed from prepared remarks to better respond to young people who had spoken to him at a cultural center in Havana. He told them the church shouldn't enclose itself in ideology or "moral regulations," according to a translation by the Zenit news service. "Open hearts. Open minds," he said. "If you are different than me, why don't we talk?"

Francis -- whose statements on capitalism, dysfunction in the church and environmental degradation have made so many headlines -- is in Cuba as a pastor who meets his people where they are.

And the Virgin of Cobre is very much a part of who Cubans are.

According to church tradition, three boys -- two native people and a black slave -- found the 16-inch statue floating on a board at sea around 1600. Once enshrined in their village, it began to draw pilgrims.

This devotion emerged from the people, and drew strong support from the institutional church. It also became closely tied to the national identity of the Cuban people. As Francis noted when he arrived in Havana on Saturday, veterans of the country's 1898 war of independence were the ones who successfully petitioned Pope Benedict XV to declare Our Lady of Charity the nation's patroness 100 years ago.

Sciorra said the image of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre is commonly found in botanicas in the New York area and in Cuban-American homes and restaurants throughout the United States, especially in Florida and New Jersey.

Pope Francis' focus on the pastoral over the political was to be expected, said Margaret Crahan, director of the Cuba Program for the Institute of Latin American Studies at Columbia University.

She said it would be unrealistic to expect that Cubans would react to Francis as Poles once did when St. John Paul II's visit helped to rally their opposition to Poland's communist government. While the church was strong in Poland even after decades of communist rule, it is weak in Cuba -- and was even before Fidel Castro took control of the government in 1959, she said.

Crahan, who has traveled to Cuba more than 50 times since 1973, said Cuba's bishops have chosen to seek gradual change in their country rather than challenge the government directly.

"They really do want to evangelize the country," she said. "They believe that the way to change Cuba is to change minds and hearts."

Francis, Crahan said, is there to support them in that effort. As the pope put it in his homily Monday: "I know the efforts and the sacrifices being made by the Church in Cuba to bring Christ's word and presence to all." He is pushing along that effort.

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