HAVANA — Pope Benedict XVI stressed themes of freedom and change as he prayed before a powerful symbol of the Cuban nation ahead of a visit with the island's president on Tuesday.
Communist leaders had a quick response: no to political reform.
Benedict visited the shrine of the nation's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, and spent moments in prayer before the diminutive wooden statue.
"I have entrusted to the Mother of God the future of your country, advancing along the ways of renewal and hope, for the greater good of all Cubans," the pope said at the sanctuary in the little town of El Cobre, outside of Santiago.
"I have also prayed to the Virgin for the needs of those who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, those who are separated from their loved ones or who are undergoing times of difficulty."
Marino Murillo, Cuba's economic czar and a vice president on President Raul Castro's council of ministers, soon made it clear that officials would not be responding with any political changes.
While the country is shaking up its economy, he told a room full of journalists covering the pope, "in Cuba there will not be political reform."
At El Cobre, the pope pointedly referred to the Virgin by her popular name, La Mambisa, in a gesture to the many non-Catholics on the island who nonetheless venerate the statue as an Afro-Cuban deity.
Mambisa is the word for the Cuban fighters who won independence from Spain at the turn of the last century.
In subtle ways, the pope has acknowledged a lack of faith in what is Latin America's least Catholic country, and tried to make his trip appealing to potential believers.
The visit is timed for the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the statue of the Virgin to two fishermen and an African slave in Cuba's Bay of Hipe.
Dunia Felipillo, 45, said she was proud to see the pope praying before the Virgin of Charity, even though she herself was not Catholic.
"We all ask favors of la Cachita," she said, using the Cuban slang for the Virgin, as she watched the ceremony on TV from the lobby of a Santiago hotel.
Benedict's frequent references to the Virgin are also a way of hitting on something the church shares with Cuba's nonreligious leaders and his wider audience, in contrast to the church's positions on divorce and abortion, not to mention his past strong comments against Marxism.
While most Cubans are nominally Catholic, fewer than 10 percent practice the faith.
"I appeal to you to reinvigorate your faith ... that you may strive to build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity," he said Monday at a Mass in the nearby city of Santiago.