Havana: Catholic faithful and fans of Pope Francis crowded into Havana`s iconic Revolution Square Sunday to hear the Argentine pontiff give mass, the highlight of his trip to Cuba.
Hundreds of Cubans and foreign visitors began streaming into the sprawling square overnight, camping out for hours to see the first Latin American pope on his most high-profile trip to date, which will also take him to the United States.
By sunrise there were already several thousand people in the plaza, and free space was hard to find.
The pope, who arrived on the communist island Saturday, will address the crowd beside a towering sculpture of his fellow Argentine Che Guevara`s iconic silhouette, following in the footsteps of his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Nearly a million people are expected to attend, including Cuban President Raul Castro and Argentina`s Cristina Kirchner.
"It`s very exciting to see Pope Francis. He`ll be the third pope I`ve managed to see, but I`ve never been so close. We`re all hoping to receive his mercy," said Maria Eugenia Paulina Prieto, 56, who sings in a choir that will perform during the ceremony.
The pope`s eight-day tour, which will also take him to the United States for the first time, follows the announcement of the US-Cuban rapprochement, which paved the way for the estranged neighbors to renew diplomatic relations in July.
Francis helped facilitate that moment in secret negotiations.
Just ahead of the pope`s trip, the United States announced a further loosening of restrictions on business and travel with Cuba -- a move that Havana`s archbishop, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, said he believed was inspired by Francis`s visit.
"It`s an extraordinary sign, and I think it`s related to this visit," he told Vatican Radio.
The pope received a tropically warm welcome on arrival in the Cuban capital Saturday afternoon, when tens of thousands of people braved the heat and humidity to greet him with dancing, cheers and banners along the route from the airport to the Vatican nunciature.
After mass, the pope will meet with Castro, then preside over vespers at Havana Cathedral before holding an unscripted exchange with young Cubans -- a demographic feeling the pain of the communist island`s difficult economic transition.Francis may also meet Castro`s older brother and predecessor Fidel, the 89-year-old father of Cuba`s 1959 revolution.
"If it happens, it will happen (Sunday). And we`ll get you the necessary information," Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told journalists Saturday.
Benedict XVI met Fidel when he visited the island in 2012, six years after the longtime leader handed power to Raul amid a health crisis.
On arriving Saturday, Francis asked Raul to convey his "sentiments of particular respect and consideration" to Fidel.
Speaking on arrival Saturday, the pope insisted that Cuba was meant to be a crossroads -- in pointed contrast with its long isolation by the full embargo the US has imposed on it since 1962.
"Cuba is an archipelago, facing all directions, with an extraordinary value as a key between north and south, east and west. Its natural vocation is to be a point of encounter for all peoples to join in friendship," he said in a speech at the airport.
He urged Castro and US President Barack Obama to build on their nascent reconciliation, saying their effort to normalize relations "fills us with hope."
He also pledged the Church`s support for the Cuban people, who face tight restrictions on their civil liberties under the communist regime and bear the weight of the economic woes that decades of isolation have wrought on the island.
While Francis shares the Castro brothers` radical critique of global capitalism, he has not been shy about prodding the regime toward change, including more space for the Church on an island that was an atheist state for more than three decades.
Francis, however, is not scheduled to meet with any anti-Castro dissidents on his trip.
The pope will travel Monday and Tuesday to the Cuban cities of Holguin and Santiago, before heading to the United States, where he will give landmark addresses to the US Congress and UN General Assembly.