VATICAN CITY — The leader of one of the world's last Communist states, Cuban President Raul Castro, said after a meeting Sunday with Pope Francis that he was so impressed with the pope that he might convert to Catholicism.
Francis granted Castro a private audience four months before he travels to Cuba and the United States, two former enemies that have credited the pope for helping them mend their relations.
"I read all of the pope's speeches," Castro said in a statement with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, whom he met after the pope.
"If the pope continues to talk in this way, sooner or later I will start praying again and rejoin the Catholic Church. I am not kidding," Castro said.
The Vatican said the papal audience was "very friendly" and lasted 50 minutes, an unusually long time. According to a statement, Castro thanked Francis for facilitating the rapprochement with the U.S. and discussed his upcoming trip to the Caribbean island.
The Argentine-born Francis is perhaps better placed than previous popes to make inroads with Cuba's Communist regime.
He is the first Latin American pope, with a reputation as a social rights campaigner and critic of unbridled capitalism. In a January interview with La Stampa newspaper he said caring for the poor "is in the tradition of the Church, it is not an invention of Communism."
Castro said he was "really struck by (Francis') wisdom, modesty and by all of the virtues we know he has.
"When the pope will come to Cuba in September I promise to go to all of his Masses, and with great pleasure," he said.
Dates for Francis' trip to Cuba have yet to be announced, but he will go there on the way to the United States. He is expected in Washington on Sept. 23, and his U.S. trip also includes stops in New York and Philadelphia.
A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Castro "laid out to the pope the sentiments of the Cuban people in the wait and preparation for his upcoming visit to the island in September."
This report contains material from the Associated Press