The Latest: Pope Francis serenaded by Cuban girls' choir

AP News
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Posted: Sep 21, 2015 8:41 PM
The Latest: Pope Francis serenaded by Cuban girls' choir

HOLGUIN, Cuba (AP) — The latest developments in Pope Francis' visit to Cuba and the United States. All times local:

8:40 p.m.

Pope Francis has been serenaded by a choir of Cuban girls after praying at the sanctuary of the country's patron saint.

The pope stood close by as the girls belted out a song to him from inside the church. Two girls in particular alternated with solos that would give Beyonce a run for her money.

Francis seemed deeply pleased with the performance and thanked them heartily afterward.

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8:10 p.m.

Pope Francis has prayed before an icon of the Madonna that is particularly important to Cubans: the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, the country's patron saint.

Francis arrived in the sanctuary shortly after landing in the nearby eastern city of Santiago — his final stop in Cuba before heading to the U.S. on Tuesday.

The pontiff brought a bouquet of flowers that he placed before the foot-tall wooden statue of the Virgin and stood in prayer for a few minutes.

He declined to kneel down on a kneeler that had been placed in front of the virgin and a chair was brought out for him instead: The 78-year-old Francis suffers from sciatica and a bad knee, and the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, acknowledged Monday that he has been walking with difficulty during the trip, particularly going up and down stairs.

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5:30 p.m.

Pope Francis has arrived in Santiago on the southeastern coast of Cuba.

After the Alitalia plane carrying Francis on his tour of the island touched down, the pontiff emerged onto a red carpet rolled across the tarmac.

Francis' schedule calls for him to visit the shrine to the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, the country's patron saint, in the evening.

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4:30 p.m.

Pope Francis has left the Cuban city of Holguin on a short airplane flight to Santiago.

Santiago is Cuba's second-largest city and the last stop on the pope's tour of the island before heading to the United States on Tuesday.

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3:55 p.m.

Pope Francis is ending his time in Holguin by blessing Cuba's fourth-largest city from the Hill of the Cross, a pilgrimage site overlooking the city.

He heads next to the southeastern city of Santiago, site of a shrine to Cuba's patron saint.

It is to be Francis' final stop on the island before he heads to the United States on Tuesday.

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1:55 p.m.

Pope Francis has high praise for Cuba's "mission houses," private homes that opened their doors for priests and laypeople to worship during the decades when the Catholic Church was out in the cold.

Francis said in his homily at an outdoor Mass in Holguin that the houses deserve a "special mention" for helping to maintain the faith "despite the scarcity of churches and priests."

The church was barred from building new houses of worship for years after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution turned Cuba into a communist state. Many priests were expelled from the country or sent to military-run work camps in the countryside in the 1960s.

Today there are some 2,600 mission houses in Cuba — mostly in rural and mountainous parts of the island. That compares to 700 parishes.

Church-state tensions have eased since the 1990s.

Local Bishops' Conference spokesman Orlando Marquez said Monday that construction of three new churches was recently authorized for Havana, Pinar del Rio and Santiago.

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10:10 a.m.

Pope Francis is calling on Cubans to heed Jesus Christ's invitation to overcome resistance to change.

Speaking in his homily at a large outdoor Mass in Holguin's Revolution Plaza, the pontiff says Christ challenges us daily to believe in the possibility of personal transformation.

Francis says "He invites us slowly to overcome our preconceptions and our reluctance to think that others, much less ourselves, can change."

It's the pope's third day on the island. He has called on Cubans to serve people rather than ideologies and not close themselves off to others who think differently.

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10:30 a.m.

Holguin's Plaza of the Revolution is packed with thousands of people waving flags as Francis travels in his popemobile through the crowd.

It's heating up quickly at 84 degrees Fahrenheit and high humidity, and lots of people are dressed in white to protect themselves from the sun. Cuban President Raul Castro is one of many wearing wide-brimmed straw hats.

Security agents don't appear to be letting members of the crowd get close to Francis. On Sunday in Havana, an apparent dissident clung to the popemobile and appeared to be appealing to the pontiff before the man was dragged away.

Ismabel Rodriguez is a 20-year-old engineering student who says the pope is urging islanders to embrace values like charity, community and family.

Rodriguez says "Cubans are very nice people, but we've lost a lot of our values. There's lying, robbery and there's isn't enough priority given to the family."

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9:35 a.m.

Singing children and a small crowd waving Cuban and Vatican flags are greeting Francis upon his arrival at the airport in the eastern city of Holguin.

Some cried out "Francis! Holguin is with you!" from the tarmac as the pope emerged from an Alitalia plane.

Cuban First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel is heading the government delegation to receive the pontiff.

From the airport Francis travels to the city's Revolution Plaza for a morning Mass in front of thousands of people with hats and parasols shielding themselves from the sun.

A giant image of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, Cuba's patron, is mounted on a building in the square.

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9:15

Pope Francis has landed in the eastern city of Holguin, the second stop on a tour of the island ahead of a visit to the United States.

The pope is scheduled to celebrate Mass in the city's Revolution and visit La Loma de la Cruz, a cross and lookout point above Cuba's fourth-largest city. Then he'll head to Santiago for a visit to the shrine of Cuba's patron saint in the nearly town of Cobre.

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8:05 a.m.

A plane carrying Pope Francis has left Havana for the eastern city of Holguin, the fourth-largest on the island, where thousands of people have already gathered in the city's plaza for today's papal Mass.

Fifty-eight-year-old Idael Confesor Martinez Leyva wore a straw hat topped with Cuban and Vatican flags as she entered the plaza. She said the pope "is going to transform the world and bring us what we need most, especially the young people."

In the evening, he heads to Cuba's second city, Santiago.

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This story has been corrected to note that Holguin is Cuba's fourth, not third-largest city.