UPDATE: Pope’s welcome speech can be found here. Stay tuned for coverage of papal Mass.
WASHINGTON — Pope Benedict XVI this afternoon lands on an island coursing with nervous energy over his three-day visit to Cuba’s two biggest cities.
Pope Benedict is scheduled to celebrate an outdoor Mass in Santiago de Cuba at 4:30pm on this Solemnity of the Annunciation. The Mass will mark the 400th anniversary of the miraculous icon and patron saint Our Lady of Charity, and the Pope will visit her shrine in El Cobre tomorrow morning for prayer before flying west to Havana, where meetings and a second public Mass are scheduled.
As enthusiastic crowds in Mexico proved, people are hungry to hear the Holy Father’s message of unity and love.
Cubans are no different.
The main contrast between the two countries is the nature of their challenges: The state must gain control of aggressive drug traffickers in Mexico, while in Cuba the state needs to relinquish control — of everything.
Wherever he travels, the Holy Father has a similar message, because the faith is transnational: By uniting with Christ, in community with each other, Catholics can renew their social and political institutions. In Mexico, each day of his visit, he unblinkingly evoked the general security problems but did not wade into policy specifics.
In Cuba, the Pope will not be able to ignore the political reality of dictatorship, and, already, he gave a hint that change must be assumed for Cuba to face the future.
But if he tells Cubans, as he urged the Mexican faithful, “to boldly promote peace, harmony, justice and solidarity,” the Cuban regime will probably get nervous.
Security police are reportedly out in force all over the island, although women known as the Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco) were able to march in Havana after attending Mass at St. Rita’s Church yesterday — under the protective witness of foreign journalists. Last Sunday, contrarily, scores of Ladies were detained.
The Ladies are the most visible symbol of growing public dissatisfaction with government control of speech, association, travel, elections and the use of prison sentences to silence democracy advocates. Their weekly protests, begun on behalf of male relatives jailed in 2003, are the only demonstrations allowed by Cuban officials, at the request of the Catholic Church.
Ladies’ leader Berta Soler told reporters she agrees with Pope Benedict’s remark on his flight to Mexico last week that “Marxist ideology, as it was conceived, no longer responds to reality” in Cuba. The Pope’s statement was considered by many to be unusually candid — and welcome.
Soler confirmed, “He’s not mistaken. Communism doesn’t work in Cuba. Really, the Cuban government has supported communism to repress its people.” She said the Ladies have not received a response to their request for a brief meeting with Pope Benedict, but they intend to attend his Mass on Wednesday, regardless of threats from security police.
Lech Walesa, former Polish president and renowned Catholic leader of the Solidarity movement, was the latest voice calling on Pope Benedict to ally himself with regime opponents while visiting Cuba. In a letter released last week, he wrote to the Holy Father: “I implore Your Holiness to take up the defense of those Cubans who are demanding freedom at the risk of persecutions and humiliation.”
Walesa explained that Pope John Paul II’s visit to Poland in 1979 inspired Poles to create Solidarity, and it “not only awakened in us, the Polish people, the hope of change, but, above all, freed our will to take action.”
For their part, Cuban officials are trying to appear as models of hospitality and openness.
Asked what he thought about the Pope’s statements against Marxism, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez told a news conference, “We consider the exchange of ideas to be useful. Cuba will listen with all respect to His Holiness.”
An Associated Press photo shows a prominent billboard in Santiago de Cuba, with a youthful image of Fidel Castro in fatigues, rifle uplifted, and the message: “Santiago. Rebel yesterday. Hospitable today. Always heroic.”
Not heroic at all, says a report released last week by Amnesty International, which explains: “The Cuban government wages a permanent campaign of harassment and short-term detentions of political opponents to stop them from demanding respect for civil and political rights.”
“Criticism of the government is not tolerated in Cuba, and it is routinely punished,” stated the Amnesty report.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom put Cuba on its annual “Watch List,” which was released March 21. Although it noted some improvements in the regime’s willingness to allow churches to conduct social-welfare programs, it criticized the Cuban government for “interference in church affairs” and “pressure to prohibit democracy and human-rights activists” from church activities, as well as detaining ministers and using surveillance to control religious practices.
Force and violence are among the techniques used to intimidate believers.
As the Holy Father told the faithful in Silao, Mexico: Christ’s “Kingdom does not stand on the power of his armies subduing others through force or violence. It rests on a higher power that wins over hearts: the love of God that he brought into the world with his sacrifice and the truth to which he bore witness.”
In a few hours, Pope Benedict XVIII will undoubtedly expand on this theme. And in a coordinated move that will likely improve his reception in Havana, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced grants to Cuba and neighboring Caribbean states totaling $3.5 million to aid Church-affiliated programs.
“The Church in the Caribbean continues to work for the common good of the region, and we continue supporting her pastoral efforts,” said Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, chairman of the Subcommittee on the Church in Latin America, in a statement released today.
“Of course, as the Holy Father visits Cuba, we express our solidarity and offer our prayers as the people of Cuba welcome the Pope to celebrate together their faith in Jesus Christ and the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the image Our Lady of Charity of Cobre.”
Register correspondent Victor Gaetan received the 2011 Catholic Press Association’s top award for a Register series on Cuba.
More information on the collection for the Church in Latin America and the projects it funds can be found at http://www.usccb.org; search for “Latin America.” The subcommittee has delegated several bishops to attend the Holy Father’s visit to Mexico and Cuba.