HAVANA (AP) _ In a rare appearance on state TV, Cuba's top Catholic leader informed the communist country of Pope John Paul II's health problems Friday, paying tribute to a leader he called a ``moral reference for humanity.''

For many, Cardinal Jaime Ortega's comments were their first word of the serious downturn in the pontiff's health. Most Cubans only receive local television stations, with little access to international news outlets.

``This is a great man that's dying,'' Ortega said. ``This is a man who has carried the moral weight of this world during 26 years, and who at the same time has had the responsibility of converting himself into the only moral reference for humanity in recent years of wars, of difficulties.''

Ortega said that ``everything seems to indicate that dawn in Rome will bring his death.''

Ortega praised the pope for coming to Cuba, calling the visit ``unforgettable.'' He said that the pope also spoke his mind about differences of opinion with Cuban President Fidel Castro, calling for openings in the island's political system. John Paul also urged the world to reach out to Cuba.

``He came to Cuba as a messenger of truth, of love, of hope,'' Ortega said.

Cuba became officially atheist in the years after the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power, but the government removed references to atheism in the constitution more than a decade ago and allowed religious believers to join the Communist Party.