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  • John Thavis

"We do not serve ideas, we serve people."

Updated: Feb 19, 2020

Celebrating his first Mass in Cuba, Pope Francis delivered an interesting homily today that highlighted a couple of key themes of his pontificate.

He focused first on service to others as the fundamental expression of Christianity. This service is never about self-promotion and never merely about setting up programs, the pope said, but involves encountering real people in their suffering.

“Service always looks to their faces, touches their flesh,” he said. “Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people.” He was speaking about the Christian approach to life, and his words carried wider meaning in a country that recently began “restructuring” its socialist policies.

The pope’s second point was the temptation to engage in “service that is self-serving,” or that helps only “our people.” This is a process of exclusion that’s often based on judging others before assisting them, he said.

I think we’re going to hear a lot about exclusion during this trip, both in Cuba and in the United States. Most of the pope’s critique of the dominant global economic system, for example, is centered on the fact that it excludes so many people from opportunities reserved for the privileged.

Pope Francis’ homily in Revolution Square was far less political than those delivered by his two predecessors. In 1998, Pope John Paul II bluntly appealed for “great change” in Cuba and urged greater respect for religious and other human rights. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI issued a similar call.

Pope Francis stayed away from direct criticism of Cuba’s government and its continuing restrictions on church activities. Perhaps he is saving that for private talks with government leaders, or for other events.

The pope seemed more intent on explaining how Christians express their faith as citizens, primarily by fighting for human dignity and helping those most in need: “That is why Christians are constantly called to set aside their own wishes and desires, their pursuit of power, and to look instead to those who are most vulnerable.”

He was, of course, speaking mainly to a Catholic audience at the liturgy. But in attendance was Cuban President Raul Castro and other government officials, and the pope’s closing remarks, which praised and challenged Cuba’s people, seemed aimed at them as well.

“It is a people that has its wounds, like every other people, yet knows how to stand up with open arms, to keep walking in hope, because it has a vocation of grandeur,” he said.

He urged Cubans to continue to care for the weakest in society, adding: “Do not neglect them for plans which can be seductive, but are unconcerned about the face of the person beside you.”

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