Castro gets religion

AT THE VATICAN: Pope Francis, right, talks with Cuban President Raul Castro during a private audience Sunday.
AT THE VATICAN: Pope Francis, right, talks with Cuban President Raul Castro during a private audience Sunday. AP

Upon hearing that Raúl Castro said he might “go back to praying and go back to the church,” our first thought was: Sure — when pigs fly!

As it turns out, Cuba’s president seemed so dazzled by his meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Sunday that he claims he’s “not joking” about getting religion, which prompts another thought: Will he go to confession?

How long would it take this lifelong communist, who served as his brother’s hatchet man for more than half a century, to recount the long list of sins committed in the service of a brutal revolution that forced millions into exile and thousands into political prisons? A revolution that until a few years ago banned open religious activity and still harasses some believers?

Would he ask for forgiveness and absolution, implying that he has seen the error of his ways? Would he vow to go forth and sin no more? To perform penance by opening Cuba’s jails and freeing the hundreds of political prisoners within those walls today?

Merely asking such questions suggests how hard it is for anyone to believe that Castro has undergone a genuine epiphany. And he still doesn’t get the basic idea of religion. He made that clear when he noted that the Cuban Communist Party is now “allowing” members to become religious believers, as if the party is endowed with the right to exercise such control over its members, body and soul, literally.

Castro’s sincerity aside, credit Pope Francis with the power to inspire an obdurate revolutionary to make at least a show of devotion. In helping to thaw relations between Cuba and the United States, the pope proved himself an agile diplomat. His meeting with Castro on Sunday showed how his warmth and personality can charm even the most hard-hearted.

He will need all of his skills, and some help from above, no doubt, to make progress on the Catholic Church’s agenda in Cuba, which must include, as a priority, freedom for religious activity.

His scheduled trip to Cuba in September will be the third by a pontiff. Each has brought some measure of change to the island, but there is still a very long way to go. Pope Francis’ visit embodies a spiritual mission in which the leader of the world’s Roman Catholics will seek to revive the faith of believers and inspire others to return to the fold.

Yet he cannot ignore the political dimension of a papal visit to a nation whose people yearn for greater personal freedom and spiritual liberation.

Above all, there must be no repeat of the crackdown on dissent, including on religious groups, that marked the visit by Pope Benedict XVI in March 2012. According to a Herald news story at the time, Cuban police carried out 1,158 political detentions that month, mostly to keep dissidents away from the pope. In addition, some members of the prominent dissident group Ladies in White were arrested at the time and kept in detention for some two years.

This pope, with the full knowledge that the Cuban government owes him for helping to end Cold War tensions with the United States, should meet with the Ladies in White and other civil-society groups. This would represent not only a token of recognition, but it would also go a long way toward legitimizing them in practice and granting them a measure of protection that the Cuban government would be foolish to violate.

The pope can’t fix what’s wrong with Cuba. But his words and gestures can help reassure its people that he understands their longing and is prepared to help them achieve it.