Pope Benedict XVI has not traveled to as many countries as Pope John Paul II did in his first seven years as Pope — 22 countries compared to about 75.
But Pope Benedict has taken on significant belly-of-the-beast excursions, visits that require the Holy Father to assert the Catholic theological and moral vision in an embattled context, whether it be Germany, Turkey or England.
Benedict’s pilgrimage to Cuba, which begins this afternoon, is another journey into hostile terrain. Cuba’s government has been one of the most relentlessly anti-religious in the world.
Yet the communist government is giving paid leave to state workers who want to attend papal events. And Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, was given 30 minutes on highly controlled state TV last week to talk about the value of Pope Benedict XVI’s pilgrimage.
What’s going on? Pope Benedict’s three-day stay in Cuba this week must be understood in a 50-year context.
Some have criticized Pope Benedict’s visit as helping to legitimize the Castro dictatorship. (President Raul Castro, 80, effectively replaced his brother Fidel, 85, in 2006, when the elder developed an intestinal illness; Raul formally became president in 2008.)
Close to 750 regime opponents living in Cuba signed a letter to the Holy Father warning him that his visit might “send a message to the oppressors that they can continue” abusing those who demand freedom.
But the Vatican’s long historical experience sees this visit in a continuum stretching back to Christ’s first public proclamation: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring the good news to the afflicted, proclaim liberty to captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim a year of favor from the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19).
So a captive island is an appropriate destination for St. Peter’s successor.
Understandably, many Cubans hope he will serve as an agent of change.
Two weeks ago March 13-15, a group of 13 regime opponents occupied a prominent church in Havana for two days, demanding free speech, Internet access, rule-of-law reform, and freedom for all political prisoners. A photo of the group shows ordinary-looking people, men and women, black and white, including an 82-year-old man.
At first, they said they would stay until they could talk to Pope Benedict about repression in Cuba. In February alone, more than 600 Cubans were arrested for political motives and given short-term detention as a form of intimidation.
But the archbishop’s office said churches cannot be used as “political trenches,” so the protest group was evicted by the Cuban police at the request of Cardinal Ortega. Democracy advocates in Miami, who say they talked to the protesters, allege that the protesters were beaten and threatened in the process of being dragged from the church.
On Sunday, March 18, dozens of Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco) were detained by police as they marched for freedom outside St. Rita’s Church in Havana, something they have done since 2003, when male relatives were jailed for democracy activities. The Ladies selected St. Rita because she is the patron of difficult causes.
Welcome to misery in Cuba and the difficult role played by the Catholic Church.
Catholic Cubans tend to appreciate the bind the Church in Cuba is in — but don’t want anyone to forget how oppressive the Castro regime has been.
Juan Clark, a professor emeritus of sociology at Miami-Dade College and author of Cuba: Myth and Reality reflects the nuanced attitude. He deeply distrusts the Cuban regime, having been driven from the island in 1960 — then surviving the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, when he was captured as a paratrooper. “In Cuba, there is a permanent carnival: Everyone has to wear a mask. Everyone watches what they tell you very carefully. And what the Castros are doing is trying to use the Church to gain respectability” internationally.
“Cuba is a totalitarian society. It is a crime for professional people to do any private work. Farmers cannot sell their goods. People have survived there as a result of the black market because, obviously, they couldn’t survive on the basis of rations,” explained Clark. “Average salaries are $20 U.S. Corruption — you can’t survive without it.”
One of the major sources of income, virtually floating the island’s economy, are “remittances.” Money sent to Cubans from family and friends abroad amounted to $2.3 billion in 2011, an amazing 19% increase over 2010 — most coming from the United States.
Clark continued, “People have been suffering for 50 years, trying to bring democracy and respect for human rights to Cuba. The Church cannot just be concerned with advancing its agenda in terms of physical spaces. Human rights must be prominently on our agenda. The Church is certainly doing important existential work in terms of food for the poor, medicine and surgical materials through Caritas.”
Another American born in Cuba, Miami Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Augustin Roman, 84, confirms that the Cuban nation, including its Church, suffers.
“I do not think anybody in Cuba is completely free, because to be in Cuba it is necessary to be very careful, and this has been true for over 50 years,” Bishop Roman said.
Bishop Roman was a diocesan priest in Cuba when he was expelled at gunpoint along with 132 fellow priests. They were literally put on a boat bound for Spain by revolutionary forces. In 1979, he became the first Cuban-born bishop in U.S. history.
Remembers the bishop, “In the beginning, Castro was thinking to do the same as in China: to have a national church created by the government. But all priests [in Cuba] refused that.”
Regarding the dilemma facing Cardinal Ortega as he balances the needs of his parishioners against the power of the communist regime, Bishop Roman said, “I know the archbishop well. He is an honest man. I don’t doubt that. He is doing the best for the people, but sometimes we don’t understand the situation he faces.”
Bishop Roman was active in helping to plan, from afar, the 2010-2011 pilgrimage of the small miraculous statue of Our Lady of Charity (La Virgen de la Caridad) —Cuba’s patron saint, whose 400th anniversary this year is the reason Pope Benedict is going to the Caribbean nation. Millions of Cubans came out to participate in the pilgrimage — which became a spontaneous evangelizing occasion — and helped convince the Holy Father to make the journey.
Bishop Roman observed, “It is beautiful — the work the Church in Cuba is doing” through this Jubilee Year. He expects the work to continue long after the communists are a distant memory.
The extent to which the Archdiocese of Miami has helped the Cuban Church envision a future beyond the Castro regime is suggested by Bishop Roman and confirmed by Father Juan Sosa, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Miami Beach.
Father Sosa is coordinator of an annual program of encuentros (meetings) that brings together priests from Cuba and the diaspora since 1997, with laity and members of religious orders added in 2000. “Each Cuban diocese sends representatives,” explained Father Sosa. “So the whole island is represented.” He said faith experiences are shared, as well as challenges that reflect the different realities facing Cubans abroad and those on the island.
This year, for the first time since 1997, the encuentro will be held in Cuba in June. It will center on a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Charity in El Cobre. According to Father Sosa, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami has been very supportive of seeing “a lot of pilgrimages” from different parts of the archdiocese and the U.S.
The Cuban-born priest said that, for the last few years, he has been encouraging everyone to do more multiyear planning, although future planning is “obviously not easy.”
One Catholic Cuban-American activist, retired businessman German Miret, echoes the most common sentiment among Cubans in exile: “I don’t see any changes until Fidel and Raul die. When they die, there will be a free for all, and those currently in power will fight among themselves for who is the successor. Cuba is not North Korea; I don’t think Raul will pick the successor. There will be a fight between the military and the government.”
And the Church will be standing.
By visiting Cuba in honor of a Marian icon discovered on the island 400 years ago, Pope Benedict’s trip signifies the fact that Catholicism long predates the totalitarian regime in place. By bringing the political leadership to its knees, attending Mass as many of them will this week in Santiago de Cuba and Havana, the Holy Father reminds the world which institution will last beyond this anachronistic dictatorship.
Register correspondent Victor Gaetan received the 2011 Catholic Press Association’s top award for a Register series on Cuba.