SANTIAGO, Cuba – The power of a diminutive icon drew the leader of the world's Roman Catholics to a bucolic hillside town in eastern Cuba on Tuesday for a moment of prayer and reflection, almost alone, amid days of vast ceremonies and meetings with heads of state.
Pope Benedict XVI spent the night in a newly built home near the small sanctuary that shelters the Virgin of Charity, a wooden statue just over a foot (35 centimeters) tall that many consider the symbolic mother of all Cubans, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.
The stop in the mining town of El Cobre was a papal reminder of Roman Catholicism's still-strong role in the culture of a nation where the church is struggling to hold onto its followers.
While most Cubans are nominally Catholic, fewer than 10 percent practice the faith. Bringing more Cubans back to the pews is a key aim of Benedict's trip to the Caribbean island.
Under a light rain late Monday, Benedict emphasized family and faith during a Mass celebrated before Raul Castro and tens of thousands of people in Santiago, the metropolis a few miles from El Cobre.
"I appeal to you to reinvigorate your faith ... that you may strive to build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity," he said.
After visiting the shrine, Benedict planned to fly to Havana later to meet with President Raul Castro and possibly Fidel Castro, though that had not been confirmed. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is in Havana undergoing radiation therapy for cancer, did not ask for an audience but would be welcome to attend Mass in the capital's Revolution Square on Wednesday, a Vatican spokesman said.
Aides held a white umbrella over the pontiff as worshippers approached to take communion, and Castro climbed the stairs to congratulate the pope when the Mass ended.
The 84-year-old pontiff's voice sounded tired and he seemed exhausted after a vigorous four days of travel. The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, acknowledged Benedict's fatigue but said his health was fine.
Just before the ceremony began, a man tried to enter an area reserved for foreign journalists, shouting anti-government slogans such as "Down with the Revolution! Down with the dictatorship!" He was led away by security agents. It was not clear who he was or what happened to him. The government did not comment.
Benedict's trip to Cuba comes 14 years after Pope John Paul II's historic tour, when the Polish pontiff who helped bring down communism in his homeland admonished Fidel Castro to free prisoners of conscience, end abortion and let the Roman Catholic Church take its place in society.
In an arrival speech Monday, Benedict gently pressed the longtime communist leaders to push through the reforms desired by their people, while also criticizing the excesses of capitalism. His words were subtle and appeared to take into account the liberalizing reforms that Raul Castro has enacted since taking over from his older brother in 2006, as well as the greater role the Catholic Church has played in Cuban affairs, most recently in negotiating the release of dozens of political prisoners.
The pontiff, who before starting his trip in Mexico said Marxism "no longer responds to reality," said he hoped his visit would inspire and encourage Cubans on the island and beyond.
"I carry in my heart the just aspirations and legitimate desires of all Cubans, wherever they may be," he said. "Those of the young and the elderly, of adolescents and children, of the sick and workers, of prisoners and their families, and of the poor and those in need."
Castro told Benedict his country is committed to freedom of faith and has good relations with religious institutions. He also criticized the 50-year U.S. economic embargo and defended the socialist ideal of providing for those less fortunate.
"We have confronted scarcity but have never failed in our duty to share with those who have less," Castro said, adding that Cuba remains determined to chart its own path and resist efforts by "the most forceful power that history has ever known" -- a reference to the United States -- to thwart the island's socialist model.
Benedict then traveled by popemobile into Santiago, Cuba's second city, barely waving through the glass to onlookers who lined the streets and waved flags.
"I thought this was amazing. This was such a labor of love and faith," said Rita Freixas, a Miami Beach resident who hadn't visited Cuba since her family left when she was 1 year old. She traveled back to the island with her two sons and a friend as part of a delegation organized by the Archdiocese of Miami. "I am so happy to be back here. I am so happy to have come."
Late Monday, Benedict bedded down in a humble but air-conditioned house constructed in recent weeks with $86,000 in church funds, made of reinforced concrete designed to withstand a magnitude-8 earthquake.
It was just 200 yards (meters) from the El Cobre sanctuary, and Cuba is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Virgin's discovery, a major reason for Benedict's visit.
The statue is one of the most powerful Catholic icons in the world, and an object of pride and reverence for hundreds of thousands in Cuba. It was taken to Monday's Mass on the top of a truck to the joy of the faithful present.
"She is a beauty, the most extraordinary thing," Mercy Serra said as the statue made its way through the crowd. "She is the mother of all Cubans."