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.’’
Benedict’s visit was planned to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of a small wooden statue of the Blessed Virgin floating in the Bay of Nipe. Cubans around the world revere her as Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, now Cuba’s patron saint.
The Miami pilgrims’ visit to her shrine in El Cobre moved Saladrigas’ wife Olga to tears. “I felt like I had two countries and that I belonged in Cuba. It was very beautiful. I felt so, so close to the Cuban people,’’ she said.
“In Benedict’s farewell discourse, he said that Cuba has to become a home for all Cubans. That said a lot without saying it in a strident way… This is what will open a future of hope for Cubans,’’ said Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, whose homily at a mass in Havana’s Cathedral urging Cubans to be “protagonists of their own future’’ brought people to their feet in a standing ovation.
Margarita Montemar, a retired Miami Dade College math professor who made the pilgrimage, thinks back on her trip often. Catholics, she said, will have to wait with patience for the fruits of the visit. “My prayer and hope is that the next pope will visit a free Cuba,’’ she said as she leafed through a photo album from the trip. “Pope Benedict’s visit was of a pastor to help people keep the faith and win over lost sheep.’’
She said she would visit Cuba again if the circumstances were right. “In a way, this trip made me more committed to the freedom of Cuba,’’ she said.
And before she left the island, Montemar wrote in her journal: “The pope’s visit will mark a before and after in the history of our country.’’
Father Luis del Castillo, who works at the Sagrada Familia parish in Santiago and is a retired Uruguayan bishop, said it’s difficult to measure the impact of Benedict’s visit.
“There are many elements that have had a strong influence through the year. How much has to do with the papal visit and how much to do with the Jubilee (the full year of celebration commemorating the 400th anniversary) is very difficult to evaluate,’’ said del Castillo.
Among the factors that has had an impact, he said, is Hurricane Sandy, which walloped Eastern Cuba in October, as well as the ongoing difficulties of daily life in Cuba.
Thousands of homes in Santiago were destroyed or damaged, five Catholic churches were leveled and others lost their roofs. But the faithful have persevered. The parishioners of San Vicente, a wooden church flattened during the hurricane, held their mass in the open air on Palm Sunday and other masses were held under makeshift canopies, said del Castillo.
Now with Pope Francis installed, Gomez said he hopes the Vatican will take a more activist role in Cuba. His wishes: that the pope beef up its diplomatic representative in Havana when a new papal nuncio is appointed, acceptance of a letter of resignation that Cardinal Jaime Ortega submitted when he turned 75 in October 2011, and appointment of a new cardinal who takes more interest in human rights and freedom of expression.
During Benedict’s visit, he was criticized for not meeting with dissidents and human right activists and Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, has drawn criticism from some dissidents who say he is too close to the Cuban government.
“If the church wants to make an impact in Cuba, it needs a very strong Vatican representative and a strong cardinal,’’ Gomez said.
But Wenski said the legacy of Benedict’s visit and his message of reconciliation, the importance of family and more space for the Cuban Church is yet to be written.
“He put into motion a lot of things that are still germinating — a lot of the effects of the visit are yet to be seen,’’ the archbishop said.