Francis and Mr. Castro met privately for nearly an hour on Sunday morning, speaking in Spanish, before the Cuban leader left the Vatican to meet with the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi. At a later news conference, Mr. Castro promised a warm welcome for Francis when he goes to Cuba in September before visiting the United States.
“I promise to go to all his Masses, and with satisfaction,” Mr. Castro said during the televised news conference. “I read all the speeches of the pope, his commentaries, and if the pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the church. I’m not joking.”
In December, President Obama described Francis as a critical broker after announcing that the United States was resuming diplomatic ties with Cuba. Mr. Obama credited Francis as helping to jump-start the diplomacy with personal letters and also by allowing the Vatican to be used for a secret meeting between diplomats from both countries. Since then, Francis has announced he would also visit Cuba before his visit to the United States in the fall.
The Vatican and Cuba recently celebrated 80 years of diplomatic relations, and the Vatican had long opposed the United States’ sanctions against the island nation. Cuba’s Communist government had restricted religious worship and promoted atheism, but an opening came in 1996 when Mr. Castro’s brother, Fidel, the revolutionary leader and longtime president, visited Pope John Paul II at the Vatican — a visit that John Paul reciprocated two years later with a trip to Cuba. Pope Benedict XVI also visited Cuba, in 2012. Cuban bishops have since received permits to build the first new church on the island since the 1959 revolution.
“I am from the Cuban Communist Party that doesn’t allow believers, but now we are allowing it,” Raúl Castro said during his news conference on Sunday. “It’s an important step.”
Mr. Castro made a reference to Cuba’s pending removal from the American government’s list of nations that sponsor terrorism. Mr. Obama has announced the move, and it is expected to become official this month after a 45-day period. Republicans in Congress recently said they would not seek to block it, but talks to restore diplomatic relations have slowed in part over the designation.
“Maybe the Senate will take us off the list of terrorist nations,” the Cuban leader said, apparently overlooking that members of Congress were not standing in the way of Mr. Obama’s order.
The Vatican released few specifics about the private meeting between Francis and Mr. Castro, other than to say that the two men met for more than 50 minutes and the mood was “very friendly.”