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For years at Havana's historic Cristobal Colon cemetery, Communist Party members refused to enter the Roman Catholic chapel there for funeral services. They stayed outside while others honored the dead because religious believers were banned from the party and being seen in a church, particularly a Catholic one, could bring trouble even for someone in mourning.

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But those days are gone and the Church has taken a bigger role in Cuban society since the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1998, said 68-year-old Erick Osio, who remembers standing outside the cemetery chapel. "Things relaxed and that taboo ended. Everything has changed for religion in Cuba since then," said the retired army colonel who now works as a parking attendant. "John Paul began a different evolution here that opened things up for believers."

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"Today it is evident that Marxist ideology in the way it was conceived no longer corresponds to reality," the pope said on the flight to Mexico, where he landed on Friday afternoon. "In this way we can no longer respond and build a society. New models must be found with patience and in a constructive way," he said, extending the Church's offer to help with a transition in one of the world's last communist countries.

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A senior Vatican official, who requested anonymity, said recently the pope wanted to assure the Cuban government that its former enemy only wanted to be helpful, not threatening, as Raul Castro undertakes reforms to improve Cuba's Soviet-style economy. "The pope wants to help Catholic leaders convince the government that it has nothing to fear from the Church in Cuba," the official told Reuters. "The Church wants to help in education, in teaching moral values. That can only help all of Cuban society as it embarks on many changes in the political and social spheres."

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