Pope Francis heads to Cuba as ‘missionary of mercy’

Soap bubbles fly as Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015.
Soap bubbles fly as Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015. AP

Pope Francis’ upcoming trip to Cuba features a number of intriguing elements from the pontiff’s role in the rapprochement between the United States and Cuba to a Catholic Church that is in the process of becoming a force in Cuban civil society.

Add to the mix Raúl Castro, Cuba’s Communist head of state who was so impressed by the pope during a May audience that he said he might even consider a return to the Church, and a Cuban cardinal who served as a secret emissary between the Vatican and White House, and the four-day papal trip is bound to be eventful.

When Francis arrives in Cuba on Saturday, he will be the third pope since 1998 to visit the island. The pontiff’s Sept. 22-27 trip to Washington, New York and Philadelphia also will be the third papal visit to the United States in the same time frame. The only other country in the Americas that a pope has visited three times is Brazil.

So why has a Caribbean island with a tiny fraction of the population of the U.S. and Brazil, the largest country in Latin America, commanded so much attention from the Vatican?

One reason may be the moment: Cuba and the United States have renewed diplomatic ties and begun the process of normalizing relations after more than 54 years of enmity.

“Cuba is important not because of its size but because of its geopolitical significance,” said Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who will travel to Cuba for Francis’ visit. “There we have the last communist regime in this hemisphere.

“The breakdown in the relationship between Cuba and the United States certainly affected the U.S. relationship with the rest of the region and hopefully a rapprochement will indicate better days ahead for Cuba, the United States and Latin America,” he said.

Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega characterizes the visit as a “special deference” the pontiff is showing to the Cuban Church and people at a time when “interesting perspectives are being opened in our national life by the new possibilities of dialogue and mutual listening taking place between the United States and Cuba for the good of both countries and all of Latin America.”

Not only did Francis play a key role in the rapprochement negotiations between Cuba and the United States, but he also offered the Vatican as a site for negotiations, and Ortega personally delivered a letter from the pope to the White House urging a meeting of minds on humanitarian grounds between President Barack Obama and Castro, who received a similar letter.

At the Aug. 14 flag-raising marking the official opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Ortega sat in the front row, flanking Secretary of State John Kerry, and was quoted in Granma, the newspaper of the Communist Party, as saying he took part “in a historic day” and “we are beginning a path that is promising.”

But Ortega also has been criticized for not speaking more forcefully on behalf of dissidents and human rights activists on the island.

In the week before the pope’s arrival, Cuba announced it was freeing 3,522 prisoners as a gesture of goodwill to the pontiff. But in addition to excluding those convicted of violent crimes, drug trafficking and illegally slaughtering cattle, Cuba’s Council of State also said the amnesty didn’t apply to those convicted of crimes against state security. Dissidents often are detained for security-related offenses.

At a recent symposium on the papal visit at Florida International University, some audience members singled out the church and Ortega, in particular, for not being outspoken enough on human rights abuses on the island.

But Sister Ondina Cortés, a theology professor at St. Thomas University, said the church has raised its voice on various occasions and is “not so silent, so mute” as some think. “Much of what the church says or raises doesn’t come out in Granma,” she added.

Father Pedro Pablo Aguilar, with Venezuela’s Episcopal Conference, said he didn’t expect Pope Francis to venture into political territory on his Cuban trip. “Like all his trips, this is a pastoral visit,” he said.

But his mere presence on the island could help “continue widening the openings” that Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI started, “and maybe some things can change for the better,” Aguilar said.

He also thought the trip would let the famously liberal pope “see the reality of that country” under the communist dictatorship.

During Francis’ last foray in the region — a weeklong trip through Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay in July — he built on long-running themes about serving the poor, the need for dialogue and condemning the “throwaway culture” that ostracizes the old, homeless and generally undesirable.

He made most of his international headlines on that trip, however, with his forceful attacks on capitalism and rampant consumerism.

The earth and people “are being brutally punished,” he said in Bolivia. “And behind all this pain, death and destruction, there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea — one of the first theologians of the church — called ‘the dung of the devil.’ An unfettered pursuit of money rules.”

Cuba’s communist government may be hoping the pontiff sticks to that vindicating message while on the island.

But during his last trip, the pope also talked about the evils of totalitarianism. And some are wondering if he will venture into that territory as he addresses the Castro brothers, who have ruled the island since 1959.

The Argentine-born pope, the first Latin American pontiff, also comes to Cuba as a “missionary of mercy.” With that as his theme, Wenski said he expects the pope’s message to be one of reconciliation: “Give your sister, your brother your hand — not an insult, not a stone.”

Francis, said Cortés, can help bring exiles and Cubans on the island together and be “a bridge over the troubled waters of the Florida Straits.”

The pope will visit three Cuban cities: Havana, Holguín, and Santiago as well as celebrate Mass at the shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint. El Cobre is an old copper mining town outside Santiago.

Since John Paul’s visit in 1998 and Benedict’s 2012 trip, the church has been consolidating its strength on the island and building on those papal visits to gain more space for its activities, which range from educating Cuba’s budding private entrepreneurs in its Cuba Emprende program to running soup kitchens for the elderly and after-school programs for children.

“The Catholic Church has recovered tremendous strength since the previous papal visits,” said Enrique Lopez Oliva, a retired University of Havana religion professor. “It is the most important non-government organization.”

The years after the 1959 Revolution were difficult ones for the church. Cuba became an atheist state, priests were booted out and religious schools were shut down. Cuba remained officially atheist for 30 years until 1992 and since then, tolerance for religious expression has gradually grown.

Analysts say the papal visits accelerated that process. The December after John Paul visited, Fidel Castro made Christmas a permanent public holiday. It had been an ordinary work day since 1969. Easter became an official holiday after Benedict’s visit.

Two new churches are under construction in Havana and Pinar del Rio — something that hasn’t happened since before the revolution. Some churches and religious facilities taken over by the state are now being returned to the Catholic Church. “The church, of course, needs funds from abroad to reconstruct them,” said Lopez Oliva.

Other things beyond the new relationship with the United States are changing, too. The government has begun a process of limited economic reform, and more economic and political changes are expected.

Lopez Oliva said the Communist Party lacks an “interlocutor” in the process of change, and the church has occupied that role.

When John Paul visited, “he asked for Cuba to open up to the world and for the world to open up to Cuba,” recalled Mons. Said Luis Castro Quiroga, the president of the Colombian Episcopal Conference: “We increasingly see signs of that.”

John Paul’s visit, for example, resulted in the 2011 opening of a seminary that is now turning out much-needed priests. At the time of Benedict’s visit, there were only 300 priests in a nominally Catholic country of 11 million people. The most recent ordination came Sept. 12 when deacon Marcelo Díaz became a priest in Cienfuegos.

Quiroga also noted the outsized political role Cuba is playing in the peace talks in Havana between Colombian government negotiators and members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — the country’s largest guerrilla group — in an effort to end a 50-year civil conflict.

He said he hoped Francis would mention Cuba’s positive role in the peace process. “It would be good for Colombia but also good for Cuba,” Quirogra said. “Cuba has traditionally been seen as an exporter of terrorism, but now it could be an exporter of peace.”

Raúl Castro has said he plans to attend all the papal Masses, and Francis is scheduled to have a meeting with him next Sunday afternoon at the Palacio de la Revolución.

When the pope and Castro held private talks at the Vatican, Castro emerged saying: “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, and I’m not joking.” Castro was baptized as a Roman Catholic and educated by Jesuits.

Castro also noted his connection with Francis, a Jesuit. “I, in some way, am too,” he said.

Papal Messages

▪ “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.” — Pope Benedict XVI’s homily during a Mass before hundreds of thousands in Havana’s Revolution Square, March 2012

▪ “My best wishes are joined with the prayer that this land may offer everyone a climate of freedom, mutual trust, social justice and lasting peace. May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba....” — Pope John Paul II as he arrived for a five-day visit to Cuba in January 1998

▪ “From the very first moment of my presence among you, I wish to say with the same force as at the beginning of my pontificate: ‘Do not be afraid to open your hearts to Christ.’ ” — John Paul II in his arrival speech at José Martí International Airport in January 1998

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