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Raúl Castro the Catholic? Pope Francis's message resonates in Communist Cuba (+video)

Cuban President Raúl Castro has joined the growing ranks of world leaders inspired by Pope Francis's message of compassion and humility.

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Cuban President Raúl Castro's personal words this weekend about the pope’s influence on his own spiritual life point to the impact Francis is having as an evangelist for the Catholic faith – a primary reason, many believe, he was chosen to lead the church two years ago.

On his way back from attending the Victory Day Parade in Moscow’s Red Square this weekend, Mr. Castro stopped by the Vatican to give his regards to Pope Francis, thanking the leader of the globe’s 1.2 billion Catholics for his help in brokering a thaw in relations with the United States.

But afterward, the revolutionary leader, president of Cuba since his famous older brother, Fidel, stepped down in 2008, also said that Francis’s speeches and efforts to stand with the marginalized might inspire him to return to the Catholic church – which for most of his brother’s leadership had been actively suppressed by the then-officially atheistic Communist regime.

“When the pope comes to Cuba in September, I promise to go to all his masses and I will be happy to do so,” Castro said in Spanish during a press conference with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Sunday. “I told the prime minister if the pope continues to talk as he does, sooner or later I will start praying again and return to the Catholic Church, and I am not kidding,” he said.

It was just the latest example of the impact Pope Francis continues to have among world leaders, who, like Castro, cite the pontiff’s modest and humble personal style as a moral leader in the world. In December, President Obama credited the pontiff for his help bringing the two long-time foes to talk, both through personal letters and an offer of the Vatican as a secret meeting place between diplomats.

“I think becoming this really important diplomat is part of [Pope Francis's] overarching mission – he sees himself as a chief evangelizer for global Catholicism,” says R. Andrew Chesnut, the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and an expert in Latin American history.

“The No. 1 reason that a Latin American was chosen as pope is because the Catholic Church has been hemorrhaging to Pentecostals going back to the 1970s, and there’s no reason more important to the future of global Catholicism than Latin America,” Professor Chesnut continues.

Cuba had already eased back on its restrictions on the Catholic faith as far back as 1996, when Pope John Paul II met with the elder Castro at the Vatican, and then became the first pope ever to visit the island. Pope Benedict did the same in 2012. Last year, the communist government gave the go-ahead for the first construction of a new Catholic church since the revolution in 1959.

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But Castro’s words on Sunday indicated the deeper, more personal influence – especially from the leader of one of the world’s remaining Communist governments. In April, President Obama announced that the US would remove Cuba from its list of states that sponsor terrorism – which currently includes Iran, Sudan, and Syria.

“I am from the Cuban Communist Party that doesn’t allow believers, but now we are allowing it,” Castro also said during his news conference on Sunday. “It’s an important step.”

Castro even joked that he, like the pope, is “a Jesuit in a certain sense,” since both he and his brother were educated by the Jesuits before the revolution and were baptized Catholics.

“I think in this specific case, there’s really a kinship that the two feel,” says Chesnut. “Of all the Catholic orders, the Jesuits really have been the pioneer in educating the elites of Latin America.”

Nearly 40 percent of the globe’s Catholics reside in Latin America, and Brazil and Mexico have largest Catholic population in the world. But during the past few decades, the church has declined, mass attendance has plummeted, and evangelical Pentecostal congregations have flourished in many Latin nations.

The pope’s and Castro’s meeting at the Vatican was private, and not an official state visit, observers note, as well as being a rare Sunday audience granted by the pope.

In the past, Fidel Castro had spoken favorably about “liberation theology,” a Catholic movement that developed in many Marxist-influenced theological circles in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, which emphasized the importance of the plight of the poor and political resistance. That “kind of squares with Pope Francis’s mission of going to the margins, going to the periphery, and really adopting this preferential option for the poor,” Chesnut says.

“On the surface, it would seem that during his two years there is a new level of enthusiasm, particularly in the church in Latin America,” he continues. Yet even though Castro says he may return to the church and begin praying again, “it’s too early to really tell if that’s translating into the all important statistics of greater participation in mass” throughout the region.

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