HAVANA (AP) _ For Mercedes Caneda, a believer, it was a miracle of faith. For Pablo Perez, a Communist, it was a miracle of politics.

With Fidel Castro's blessing, Cubans by the hundreds of thousands left work and school early Wednesday to greet the man Catholics believe is the vicar of Christ on Earth with a heady mix of sacred and secular affection.

Gold and white papal flags mixed with blue, white, and red Cuban flags as the pontiff slowly traveled through downtown Havana. Chants of ``John Paul II and Virgin of Charity, we love you'' echoed from crowds four and five deep on both sides of the street.

``We never thought that such a thing would happen in this country. These are things that are like miracles,'' said Pablo Perez, a 20-year-old mechanic, as he stood along the motorcade route.

Perez, a proud member of the Communist Youth, said he had great hopes the visit of this pope, an outspoken opponent of sanctions on humanitarian aid, could break the U.S. economic blockade.

Across town, Caneda, 25, said she felt a divine spirit as a tired-looking pontiff passed the spot she had been standing on for hours awaiting his arrival.

``This is the day we feel close to Christ,'' she said. ``Because the image of the pope is a live representation of Christ, that Christ does not forget us. In spite of everything, Christ is with us.''

The socialist government gave the papal arrival the same treatment normally reserved for military parades and patriotic celebrations. Workers were sent from their offices to central meeting places and then marched or were bused to the parade route.

Some were more enthusiastic than others.

For Marcellino Rodriguez, an engine factory worker who lounged with his friends on the grass in a park several feet away from where thousands of the faithful stood for hours lining the motorcade route, coming out for the pope was ``a gesture of politeness, respect.''

The visit meant much more to the faithful, who endured nearly three decades of official repression.

As the pope passed by, said 32-year-old Gisela Lopez, a beatific expression transforming her face, ``I asked God to help us.''

Jose Abelo, 35, who lifted his infant daughter onto his shoulders to see the pope, said practicing faith will be easier for her.

``I am 35 years old. I was born after the revolution,'' Abelo said. ``There has been no religious education at all. Until these days, when so many things have been said about the pope's visit. What cannot be denied is that there is a spirit of joy and solidarity among the people.''

The excitement mounted early in the day as workers and schoolkids left at noon to take spots along the motorcade route. Half the youths at the Little Friends of the World kindergarten do not attend church, but all were going with their parents to see the pope.

``The pope belongs to a very good family, and he loves the Cuban children,'' said 5-year-old Alejandro Amaya.

Delegations from downtown churches marched to the motorcade site.

``The Cuban people today feel the happiest of anyone in the world,'' said 50-year-old Margarita Roche, marching in a halter top and shorts with 200 people, mostly children, from two Old Havana churches.

``We've returned to our church,'' she said.