New U.S.-Cuba relationship frequent theme during pope’s visit

Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. Listening behind the pope are Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio.
Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. Listening behind the pope are Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio. AP

During Pope Francis’ trip to Cuba and the United States, there have been constant reminders of the new relationship between the two former adversaries and the hope for a better future.

Both President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro have thanked Francis for his behind-the-scenes role in helping along secret negotiations that culminated in the announcement last December that the two countries had started on the road toward normalizing relations. Diplomatic ties were reestablished July 20 after 54 years of hostilities, and the two countries are in the process of trying to work through some of the tough issues that still separate them.

Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski has said that the papal trip has served as a bridge between the United States and Cuba and that the pope would use his experience during his trip to Cuba to inform his visit to the United States.

Although the pope didn’t directly mention Cuba during his Thursday address to the U.S. Congress, one of his references about dialogue between countries seemed apt for the new U.S-Cuba relationship.

“It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same,” the pope told a joint session of Congress. “When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue — a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons — new opportunities open up for all.”

So far, there have been other parallels in the pope’s visits to the two countries.

Although Cuba was officially atheist from 1962 to 1992 and Castro is a member of the Communist Party, he followed the pope at masses in all three Cuban cities he visited and watched attentively at Antonio Maceo International Airport in Santiago on Tuesday until the pontiff’s Alitalia flight for Washington, D.C., took off.

On the pope’s arrival in Washington, it was President Barack Obama who walked side-by-side with him and told him: “Holy Father, we are grateful for your invaluable support of our new beginning with the Cuban people, which holds out the promise of better relations between our countries, greater cooperation across our hemisphere, and a better life for the Cuban people.’’

In his remarks, Francis, the first pope from the Americas, also touched on the possibilities of reconciliation. “Mr. President, the efforts which were recently made to mend broken relationships and to open new doors to cooperation within our human family represent positive steps along the path of reconciliation, justice and freedom,” he said.

During a White House briefing this week, spokesman Josh Earnest noted that the president “has had a desire to travel to Cuba even before Pope Francis made the decision to travel to the island.

“There’s nothing that we saw about the pope's visit that in any way diminishes the president's enthusiasm for that — for that possibility,” Earnest said.

The White House has said that the president will continue to seek the pontiff’s support as it proceeds with its new relationship with Cuba.

It also pointed up Cuban and U.S. cooperation on health issues in Haiti and the two countries’ previous collaboration on fighting Ebola as demonstrating “how our continued normalization of relations with Cuba can help us advance our interests in the Americas.”

During the papal Mass in Havana, Francis called on Cubans to serve their brothers and sisters, saying “we do not serve ideas; we serve people.” Analysts said that message also was aimed at the Cuban government.

Francis also reminded U.S. legislators during his congressional address that “legislative activity is always based on care for the people.”

Cuba’s patron saint, Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre — one of the most powerful symbols in Cuba for believers and non-believers alike — also was frequently mentioned by the pope while he was on Cuban soil. A papal Mass also was celebrated at the national shrine for the virgin in El Cobre, an old copper mining town outside Santiago.

During a visit to Miami in May, President Obama also visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre in Coconut Grove. The gesture, seen as an olive branch to those in the Cuban-American community troubled at the rapprochement, was the first visit by a U.S. president to the seaside shrine better known as La Ermita de la Caridad.

During Francis’ encounter with families in Santiago, there also was another powerful message of reconciliation and bridging as a Cuban Catholic priest presented the pope with an image of Cachita, Cuba’s affectionate name for Our Lady of Charity, and asked that it be given to Cuban families in the United States.

Mimi Whitefield: @HeraldMimi