Over and over during his trip to Cuba, Pope Francis talked about reconciliation, mercy and service, but Cuba watchers say there also was a political subtext to his pastoral remarks that Cubans accustomed to reading the tea leaves could detect.
“He talked about bringing people together with no divisions. His other great message was a call to service,” said Rev. Juan J. Sosa, the pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Miami Beach.
In urging Cubans to put “our brothers and sisters at the center” and care for each other during the opening papal Mass in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, Francis also said that “service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas; we serve people.”
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Sosa, who was in Havana for the papal visit, said those remarks shouldn’t only be interpreted as a call for Cubans to be kind and to help each other. “It’s also the work of the political leadership to serve the people,” he added.
While celebrating vespers with the clergy at Havana’s Cathedral, the pope departed from his prepared remarks to talk about poverty and “the spirit of leaving everything behind to follow Jesus.” But in his prepared homily, he spoke of individualism, of the value of men and women thinking for themselves and being the protagonists of their own future.
Unity, Francis said, is often confused with uniformity, “with actions, feelings, words, which are all identical. This is not unity; it is conformity. It kills the life of the spirit,” he said. “Unity is threatened whenever we try to turn others into our own image and likeness.”
And in a subtle jab at top-down control and the one-party Communist state, he added, “Unity is a gift, not something to be imposed by force or decree.”
In his meeting with families at Santiago’s Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral, the pope again emphasized the theme of personal autonomy, calling families “domestic churches,” who are instrumental in passing on the faith. “It is in the warmth of the home that faith fills every corner, lights up every space, builds community,” the pontiff said. “Let us care for our families, true spaces of freedom.”
“The pope also spoke of breaking the power of elitism and getting involved in service to the people,” said Enrique Lopez Oliva, a scholar of religion in Cuba. Above all, he said, that message was directed to the government and the Communist Party.
Throughout his time on the island, the pope’s words were carefully parsed but nonetheless powerful.
Although there is a high abortion rate in Cuba and young people, often faced with few economic prospects, are reluctant to form families, the pope didn’t rail against abortion or young people’s lack of interest in having children. Instead, when he was in Santiago, he addressed the pregnant women of Cuba: “I ask you to put both your hands on your bellies, which are carrying hope. If you are sitting here, watching on TV, or listening on the radio, I bless your wombs, and may you have a healthy child.”
“Instead of addressing the issue of abortion in anger, he instead turned it into a positive,” said Sosa.
That was the pope’s style throughout his Cuban trip with his deeply nuanced and veiled remarks.
“He was incredibly guarded and he needs to be. The church is playing the critical role of being an interlocutor in Cuba today,” said Jason Marczak, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.
Historically Catholicism in Cuba has been weaker than in the rest of Latin America, and Cuba was officially atheist from 1962 until 1992. During that period, foreign priests and nuns were expelled, religious schools were closed, the government took over religious facilities, and many Cubans feared engaging in any open expression of faith.
But in the 1990s, the church began gaining space for its social programs and its beliefs. The pace of those changes accelerated after Pope John Paul’s 1998 visit to Cuba and Pope Benedict XVI’s 2012 trip, and many expect Francis’ visit will also have a positive impact.
In his remarks, the pope “hinted that this could be a moment, an opportunity for change in Cuba,” Marczak said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C.
The overall message of the papal trip to Cuba was “that Cuba has to enter a new historic era and the church wants to play an important role and create a new church for this moment,” said Lopez Oliva, a retired University of Havana professor.
Some have suggested that the pope should have been more forceful in his critique of human rights violations and more than five decades of Castro rule. The pro-democracy Unión Patriótica de Cuba said 142 of its members were detained, most in Santiago on the final day of the pope’s visit, and other activists were threatened with detention if they left their homes during the papal trip. Members of the Ladies in White dissident group also were temporarily detained.
UPACU complained in a press release that “the pope didn’t utter a single phrase of solidarity with the victims of repression and when he traveled from Cuba to the United States, he said to the press he wasn’t aware of the detentions of peaceful opposition members.”
But Marczak said there was a reason the pope’s comments weren’t stronger.
“The church has walked a delicate tightrope in Cuba for the past 20 years or so. Being more forceful in his remarks could have cut off the church from the government, perhaps hampering its critical mission of helping the Cuban people,” he said. The pope, Marczak said, did a good job of “balancing” his remarks.
In recent years, the church has greatly expanded its role in Cuba’s civil society: It provides soup kitchens, offers entrepreneurial training, partners with the government in facilities for the island’s aging population, and provides after-school and breakfast programs for children. It also has participated in negotiations for the release of political and common prisoners.
But there are still only about 360 priests on the whole island despite a seminary opened in 2011 that is slowly increasing their numbers.
Evidence of the turning tide for the church was the presence of Cuban leader Raúl Castro at all three papal Masses from the capital to the far eastern end of the island, and permission for Pope Francis to deliver a short nationwide address on Cuban television in advance of his Sept. 19-22 visit. As Francis arrived, Castro said he welcomed him “with profound affection, respect and hospitality.”
But there are many more things the church would like to see happen, said Lopez Oliva. Among them are the return of more confiscated church properties [slowly the government has been giving them back but some are roofless and in poor repair], the ability to get support so it can rebuild and repair churches, no limits on the entry of religious people, and more space for seminarians and the church’s educational programs.
While reopening religious primary and secondary schools doesn’t appear to be a priority for the church, it does seem interested in running a Catholic university in Cuba, said Lopez Oliva.
The Felix Varela Cultural Center, where Pope Francis addressed Cuban young people, already operates as an embryonic Catholic University although the state doesn’t recognize its degrees, he said.
With Cuba’s shortage of priests, members of the laity have taken up important roles in Cuba. When the pope spoke of “calling us out of our house” at the Mass at the shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, Francis was speaking of the role the laity plays in bringing a religious experience to those in areas where there are no priests or churches through the Casa de Misión (Mission House) program, said Lopez Oliva.
“We are invited to ‘leave home’ and to open our eyes and hearts to others,” Francis said at El Cobre. “Our revolution comes about through tenderness, though the joy that always becomes closeness and compassion, and leads us to get involved in, and to serve the life of others.”
Mimi Whitefield: @HeraldMimi