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Castro, Cardinal O’Connor Meet

April 21, 1988

HAVANA, Cuba (AP) _ Fidel Castro met late Wednesday with Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, a government official said, after the Roman Catholic prelate celebrated an emotional and historic Mass.

The Cuban leader received O’Connor at the presidential palace at about 11 p.m., (10 p.m. EDT), according to a spokesman for the Foreign Relations Ministry, after the cardinal finished saying Mass at Havana’s cathedral.

Reporters were hustled out of the Mass at 9 p.m. and brought to the palace, where they were told Castro and O’Connor would be available for a photo session. But at 11:30 p.m., it was announced that Castro canceled the session because O’Connor had been late arriving at the palace. There was no word on what was discussed or how long the meeting would last.

O’Connor received thunderous applause as he walked in a procession to the altar of the 284-year-old cathedral in Havana’s colonial district.

About 2,000 people crammed the baroque building, shouting ″Bravo 3/8″ and applauding as 75 white-cloaked clergymen walked slowly toward the altar.

One man grabbed O’Connor’s hand and kissed it as he went by.

″There has been a mistake,″ the cardinal said jokingly in Spanish. ″You’ve welcomed me as a pope, but I am only a cardinal, a poor cardinal.″

The heat inside the cathedral was stifling and many people fanned themselves with the latest edition of the Communist Party daily Granma.

O’Connor is the first American cardinal to visit Cuba since Castro came to power in 1959 and this was his first Mass since arriving in Havana on Tuesday.

The cardinal spoke in Spanish and frequently departed from a prepared statement, according to Gerald Costello, editor in chief of Catholic New York, a weekly Catholic newspaper. Costello briefed reporters at the presidential palace.

″The church must be allowed to develop its role as a bridge, with the freedom which allows open communication with its faithful and with the rest of society,″ O’Connor said.

Despite years of religious restrictions in this officially atheist nation, people in the crowd said they had no fear of showing their faith.

One woman said her husband, Alberto Jane Padron, has been in prison 22 years. ″He is not a criminal ... he’s just a Catholic who fought against the government,″ Ruby Padron said of her husband.

When asked if she was nervous about being a practicing Roman Catholic, Mrs. Padron said: ″No, that was in the past. It’s different now. The hands of the red Communist (government) are easier, not so harsh.″

Mrs. Padron gave a reporter a letter to give to O’Connor, which she said was on behalf of her husband and other political prisoners.

Another woman also thurst a letter in a reporter’s hand. She only said the letter, in a sealed envelope, was for O’Connor on her husband’s behalf.

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