In the year since then-Pope Benedict XVI visited Cuba with a message of “reconciliation,” change has come to Cuba but even greater change has come to the Roman Catholic Church.
Though no one present during the March 26-28, 2012 papal visit would have imagined it, a new pope has been installed as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics and Benedict has resigned and taken the title of pope emeritus.
But Benedict, who appeared physically frail as he made the demanding trip to Mexico and Cuba, perhaps foreshadowed his decision to leave the papacy in his departing words to Cubans: “Goodbye forever…. May God bless your future.’’
In the intervening year, Cuban leader Raúl Castro has announced he plans to retire in five years and named an heir apparent, a devastating hurricane swept Santiago where Benedict celebrated mass, and Cuba has announced a new policy that will make it easier for Cubans to travel abroad and for Cubans previously banned to return for visits.
The Cuban Church is preparing a new pastoral program that will set its course for the next five years. And Good Friday will once again be a national holiday in Cuba. The government, which was once fiercely anti-religious, made it a holiday for the first time last year in a nod to Benedict’s visit.
Still, on the anniversary of the visit, which coincides with Holy Week this year, it may be too soon to gauge the impact of Benedict’s mission.
In a recent pastoral letter, the Catholic bishops of Cuba emphasized the revival of faith and said Benedict’s visit “showed us that true faith does not remove the believer from reality but engages with history and with the environment to build a more humane, more just and fraternal society.”
Although Benedict wasn’t overtly political, he did echo the sentiments of Pope John Paul II during his 1998 visit to Cuba that the island should “open itself to the world’’ and end its isolation.
In his homily during a mass before hundreds of thousands in Havana’s Revolution Square, Benedict said, “Cuba and the world need change, but this will occur only if each one is in a position to seek the truth and chooses the way of love, sowing reconciliation and fraternity.’’
Those words still resonate for many of the more than 300 people who traveled to Cuba with the Archdiocese of Miami for the papal visit.
Andy Gomez, who sits on the Archdiocese of Miami’s synod and is a senior fellow at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, said since Benedict’s visit there does seem to be more people-to-people contact and more communications between the Cuban diaspora and those on the island.
“I do so see more willingness on the part of Cuban exiles to build bridges. The trip helped by bringing back stories that have continued to shape and change the rhetoric,’’ Gomez said.
“One can only hope that his message of reconciliation will sink in because it is going to be a very difficult process,’’ said Carlos Saladrigas, a South Florida businessman who was one of the pilgrims. “The timing was opportune because I think we’re at a crossroads since Cuba has begun a process of change. How Cuba does it and how we all help Cuba is very important.’’