I confess: I’m a bad Catholic. I’m a bad Cuban, after four decades of citizenship, too Americanized. In Trumpian corners, I’m a bad American for feeling Cuban when I hear the drums beat.
And here comes Pope Francis, a spiritual leader for weary times, attempting to deliver the miracle of reconciling tyranny and democracy, of bridging the wide spaces that separate the two countries to which my hyphenated soul belongs.
After his three-day visit to Havana, Holguín, and Santiago, the peacemaker between strongman Raúl Castro and President Barack Obama will become the first pope to address the U.S. Congress. And so, the political fireworks are built in to the schedule of this reform pope (“God is not afraid of new things!”), a modern “people’s pope” who happily allows teens in St. Peter’s Basilica to take selfies with him, and hasn’t yet come upon a topic he doesn’t address with compassion.
“Who am I to judge?” he famously said on gay Catholics.
This third papal visit to a Cuba under the long regime of the Castro brothers is a transcendent one, not only for the pivotal moment in U.S.-Cuba relations that Pope Francis helped broker, but because he is embraced in this hemisphere as “one of us.”
Francis is a man of the world, but with roots in Latin culture. He speaks our language. He intimately knows our history. He’s Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a charming and humble Argentine. Surely, the tremendous contrast between his “mission of mercy” and the destructive role of the other Argentine who made history in Cuba is not lost on him: Che Guevara’s giant silhouette will stand beside the larger-than-life Pope Francis when he says Mass on Revolution Square on Sunday — a surreal vision of executioner and saint.
Emotions and expectations waver high and low. But grudgingly, and despite plenty of evidence that I shouldn’t, I succumb to the enchantment of Francis and pin my hopes on his apostolic journey.
Pope John Paul II in 1998 regained the religious freedoms that Fidel Castro’s brand of communism had outlawed. He brought back Christmas, community, and as a result, other faiths also experienced a resurgence.
In his presence, the hateful image of Che faded into the background.
“Do not be afraid,” he told the Cuban people.
Many took him at his word, speaking up and birthing the pluralistic dissident movement known around the world today. That’s why the Cuban government, fearful of truth and light, has cracked down on dissidents and the peaceful, churchgoing Ladies in White, arresting them for the last 22 Sundays before the pope’s visit. Pope Francis must intercede and demand the release of all political prisoners, and especially, the young artist Danilo Maldonado, known as El Sexto.
With basic freedoms curtailed, can people place their faith on a pope when the repressors seem to hold almost all the cards?
You can’t change in one papal visit — or in three — what has taken more than five decades to destroy.
But I suspect that in the presence of Francis, el bueno, even bad Catholics grounded in thunderous reality in Miami are lighting candles and, once again, hoping God is listening.