Over the last decades, the Catholic Church has moved from the margins in Cuba’s national life to a more influential role.
This progress has been mostly defined by decisions taken in Cuba. But it has also been propelled forward by Pope John Paul II’s trip in 1998 and now by the visit of Pope Benedict XVI this week.
We were in Cuba as the Pope journeyed from Santiago to Havana. We spoke to scores of Cubans. Disappointment was hardly the prevailing sentiment, and we dissent from the view expressed in some news accounts that the Pope’s trip to Cuba failed to meet expectations.
In our view, this is what the Pope’s trip to Cuba accomplished.
First, it served a pastoral purpose, “I came here,” the Pope said, “as a witness to Jesus Christ.” He spoke to a Cuban congregation that is a fraction of the island’s population, but his very presence reminded them they were not forgotten.
Second, the trip is likely to lead to larger spaces for the faithful to worship. David Adams, writing for Reuters, said the Pope “used the trip to deliver a shopping list of requests in talks with Raul Castro…including official recognition of Good Friday – barely a week away – as a national holiday, as well as pressing for greater access to the media and the right to open religious schools.”
Third, the visit touched Cubans beyond the community of Catholics. His visit received extensive coverage on Cuban television. Many Cubans we saw in the Plaza of the Revolution – especially younger Cubans –did not come to fulfill a religious purpose, but were drawn to the historic presence of the Pope because they wanted to hear and participate in something historic.
Fourth, Pope Benedict and Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, during their homilies in mass and other public appearances, pressed on issues that the larger Cuban community does not get to hear discussed, regardless of their beliefs.
The Pope said these and other things with Cuba’s President Raúl Castro, who attended two of his masses, seated in the front row. Even some of his critics in the U.S. were forced to acknowledge his message “demanding dignity and freedom for all.
Fifth, the Pope’s visit was an occasion for reunification, reconciliation, and exchange for Cubans and their families from the United States. Archbishop Wenski led a pilgrimage of hundreds of Miami Catholics to see the pope. They included Cuban Americans who had fled the island, never returned, or rarely visited.
But, as the Associated Press reported, some of these pilgrims enjoyed the mind- and heart-opening experiences that can only take place through travel:
Lourdes Amorin, who left Cuba for Puerto Rico as a young girl with her family shortly after the 1959 revolution, said she grew up thinking she had nothing in common with Cubans on the island. “Our parents, our relatives got it into our minds that we have nothing to return to. I am going to go home to tell them we have a lot in common. We are human. We are all Cuban.”
This is progress. More is likely to follow.
As it updates Cuba’s economic model, cutting state employment, encouraging Cubans to take private sector jobs, cutting benefits and subsidies, the government is saying, as the Wall Street Journal noted this week, that the state cannot do everything for its people, and it is inviting the church to help fill the resulting void in both spiritual and material ways.
On the island, the church is the largest, most encompassing institution other than the state, and Cuba’s government acknowledges its reach by engaging its help in delivering social services and aid to the islands’ needy. At the same time, as Anya Landau French observed, the church is publishing “unvarnished criticisms of Raúl Castro’s halting economic reforms.” The church’s role is also political – it was involved in Cuba’s decision to release all of the prisoners that remained from the 2003 crackdown against dissidents.
This will continue, as Dr. William LeoGrande, a Latin America expert and the dean of the American University School of Public Affairs in Washington, told McClatchy, as demonstrated by the Pope’s last meeting in Cuba, with former president Fidel Castro. The meeting, he said, “sends a message to ordinary Cubans that Fidel is comfortable and supports the new relationship between the church and state.” This in turns will build acceptance of the church’s role among intellectuals and elites in the months and years ahead.
Some will never be satisfied. Senator Marco Rubio worried that the church had negotiated “political space for themselves in exchange for their moral imperative.” A spokesman for the exile community told the Miami Herald “The pope’s visit is part of a combination or strategy to confuse people.”
We’re not confused. This trip provided solace for the faithful, religious space for the church, reconciliation for Cuban Americans, a testament to the power of travel, and the promise of a larger role for the church during an era of economic and political change in Cuba.
We think this is pretty powerful stuff.