When the invitation came to travel to Cuba and address the island nation's bishops and lay leadership, I could hardly believe my good fortune. Cuba — where Pope John Paul II had just recently traveled and raised the hope of a renewed Catholic faith. The invitation was just too good to turn down.

Until Friday, Dec. 3, it was impossible to fly directly from the United States to Havana. As luck would have it, I had to be there on Dec. 1. I therefore took the four-airport, 12-hour tour to José Martí airport. After a rather tense beginning in the immigration office there, I met the Cubans who had arranged my stay. They radiated the kind of cheer and good will I observed in everyone I met there. All laughter, smiles and hugs, they welcomed me to Cuba.

It was difficult at first not to be overwhelmed by the lack of material goods in my surroundings. By Western standards, the neighborhood in which we stayed, in western Havana, was rather shocking. Clearly, paint and repairs hadn't been affordable for decades. The houses looked more like cement-block shells, peeling and gutted. Perhaps even more stunning was the evening we ate dinner in a tourist-type restaurant. The next day was to be a celebration of “the medical profession in Latin America,” so all doctors were asked to stand for a round of applause. Many waiters stood. When I asked how this could be, it was explained that a waiter could earn in one night what a doctor earned in one month.

It was also immediately apparent that this is not a society where religion has been allowed to show its public face. Occasionally, I would pass a once-graceful building, now boarded up, only to be told it had been a Catholic school. I wondered aloud to one of the Cuban bishops how the Church was “getting away with” holding this conference. He explained to me that, in Cuba, no one is really certain at this time what is explicitly permitted and what explicitly forbidden. So one tries this and that — and stops when “the government puts a hand on your shoulder” and tells you to.

The conference itself, “Ecclesia in America: Anthropological, Economic and Social Implications for Cuba,” was a three-day reflection on the Pope's 1999 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America (The Church in America). Speakers from the Holy See, Panama, Chile, Peru, Mexico and Italy addressed issues such as the lay state and the mission of the Church, how to build a new economy in service to humankind, human rights, and a Christian ethics of globalization. I was invited to speak on “A Culture of Life and Civilization of Love.”

From the perspective of a Christian of marriage and family, the situation in Cuba right now is quite dire. In fact, it's really a worst-case scenario. Birth control and abortion are free; childbirth is not. While no one, apparently, is keeping count of the number of abortions each year, several people at the conference indicated to me that they believe abortions outnumber live births.

Watching Cuban children playing in the streets and riding on bicycles with their parents, it seemed clear that Cuban parents see their children as a huge source of joy. Still, their numbers are relatively few. According to a historian who befriended me, the government of Fidel Castro wants only so many people on the island. Too many could pose a threat to government control. And so the government strictly controls the milk and other food a family needs for its children. One can receive only so much every other day. It might be enough for one child, and maybe it could even stretch for two. But three ….? You get the picture.

Is it really possible to build a civilization of love in a country where raising a family Catholic requires a high degree of heroism?

The Cubans have begun to answer that question with a resounding yes. This is apparent, first and foremost, in their very persons. They are already a “people of life” — remarkably generous, kind and lively. (Many exchanges brought back a flood of memories from Sunday afternoons spent with dozens of my own Cuban relatives during the 1960s and '70s.) Furthermore, to steal a phrase, they “just do it.” They move forward against incredible odds trying to spread the message of natural family planning and warning of the havoc abortion can wreak on your soul. I flew home with a very long list of requests for pro-life information of every kind. Which they will hand out …. until someone puts a hand on their shoulder. Then they will bide their time until it is safe to begin again.

Helen Alvaré is director of planning and information of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.