Benedict's Latin America Pilgrimage

Pope Benedict emphasized faith in public life on a momentous visit to Mexico and Cuba.

Pope Benedict XVI appealed to both Mexicans and Cubans to respect the place of faith in public life during his momentous six-day Lenten journey.

While the Holy Father called for greater religious freedom in Cuba, he also urged Mexicans to better integrate their faith and public life.

Benedict began his pilgrimage March 23 in León, the fourth-largest city in Mexico, which lies at the geographical center of the country. He had several reasons for this journey. One was to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the independence of many Latin American countries.

Before he landed, he told journalists that he wanted to strengthen the people “in their commitment to the good and their battle against evil.”

The Pope referred to one manifestation of that evil, Mexican drug trafficking, denouncing the “idolatry of money that enslaves men” and the “false promises, lies, deception” that keep people from the good. It is estimated that drug-related violence has claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people in Mexico in the last five years.

"Above all, we have to proclaim God,” said the Pope, “God who is our judge and who loves us. But he loves us to call us to the good and to the truth against evil.” In this battle to make truth and goodness present, “the Church has the great responsibility of educating consciences, educating in moral responsibility and unmasking evil,” he said.

Although the majority (83%) of the Mexican people claim Catholicism as their religion, there is often a disconnect between faith and practice, especially when it comes to bridging the private and public spheres.

In response to this challenge, the Holy Father indicated the need for a deeper education that spans not only individual morality, but also public morality, as in the social doctrine of the Church.

On March 24, he also reminded young people to follow Christ: “God knows us, and he loves us. If we let the love of Christ change our heart, then we can change the world.”

On March 25, the Pope celebrated Sunday Mass in Bicentennial Park in the industrial city of Silao, 20 miles away from León. He told the gathering, which included President Felipe Calderón and the four candidates for this year’s Mexican presidential election, that Mexico will not be able to overcome its difficulties by relying only on political and economic measures.

The Pope emphasized the need to pray for a pure heart where Christ “can live as prince of peace, thanks to the power of God, which is the power of the good, the power of love.” In this way, he said, Mexicans will be able to transform society, spreading the peace within them to others.

Cuba, Libre?

The Pope left Mexico on March 26 for Cuba, where severe restrictions of religious freedom persist. But by visiting Cuba in honor of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the image of Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre, Pope Benedict’s trip reinforced the fact that Catholicism long predates the totalitarian regime in place.

Throughout his three-day pilgrimage, Pope Benedict’s goal of preaching the Gospel to an embattled people was grossly undermined by the heavy-handed tactics of government security agents who forcibly prevented many people from hearing his message.

More than 150 human-rights activists were detained, typically sequestered in police stations, during the Pope’s pilgrimage to prevent them for expressing opposition to the Castro regime, according to Amnesty International.

Individual protesters at each Mass were assaulted and hustled away by police.

Erratic Twitter posts reported that some regime opponents were forcibly blocked from attending the Mass. The state entity that controls electronic communication on the island restricted Internet access and SMS capability until March 29 — after the Pope departed Cuba. The phone lines and cellphone connections of dissidents were disconnected. The Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, an independent organization tolerated by the government, lost all phone service while Pope Benedict was in the capital city, according to its founder Elizardo Sanchez.

And unlike most open-air Masses in cities around the world, there were no jumbo screens, meaning that few participants could even see the Pope, let alone participate in the liturgy.

Havana-born U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who serves as the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman, issued a statement condemning “the arbitrary and wanton arrests of peaceful, pro-democracy activists throughout the island before and during the Pope’s visit.”

In some cases, she said, government critics had their homes surrounded by agents who blocked residents from leaving to attend Mass in Santiago de Cuba and Havana.

The Twittersphere had numerous reports of people who had “disappeared,” including two members of the dissident group Ladies in White.

Forced Attendance

Ironically, while preventing some people from participating in papal Masses, Cuban authorities required others to attend.

Government workers were given two days off and were bused to papal events. Some had to “check in” with supervisors or teachers to demonstrate they were, indeed, attending.

“At the Mass in Santiago de Cuba, there were some in the crowd who were very detached, probably told to be there,” recalled Francis Rocca, one of many journalists who accompanied the Pope on the trip from Rome. “We know some people were ordered to go.”

But if they paid attention, they heard radically different understandings of human dignity — and what’s required to improve Cuba’s future — from the leaders of the Church and the leaders of the Revolution.

Referencing the historic visit of Blessed John Paul II to Cuba 14 years ago, the Pope credited his predecessor with initiating a new phase of cooperation between Church and state on the island, while calling for “greater progress” in the future, especially regarding “the indispensable public contribution that religion is called to make in the life of society.”

The Pope described progress as requiring “an ethics which focuses on the human person,” as opposed to the self-described needs of the state and its rulers.

He aligned himself, several times, with the aspirations of “all Cubans, wherever they may be,” for justice, peace, liberty and reconciliation. With more than 2 million Cubans comprising an active diaspora, most living in the United States, the Church has long emphasized reconciliation to defy physical separation and reduce animosity.

Pope Benedict stressed that, in every society, the individual must be free to discover God’s truth as a precondition for authentic social renewal and progress.

As the Pope concluded in his Santiago de Cuba homily: “I appeal to you to reinvigorate your faith, that you may live in Christ and for Christ, and armed with peace, forgiveness and understanding, that you may strive to build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity and which better reflects the goodness of God.”

The government was quick with a verbal smackdown, rejecting the notion that any person or entity, outside government, has answers for the nation’s future, especially ideas that turn on individual freedom or autonomy.

President Raul Castro assured the Pope that Cuba is already “changing all that needs to be changed.” He is considering, however, the Pope’s request to make Good Friday a national holiday.

At a press conference with reporters covering the visit, Marino Murillo, who oversees economic reform as vice president of the Council of Ministers, defiantly declared, “In Cuba there will not be political reform.”

Murillo’s comments ignored the existence of a daring — and rapidly diversifying — democracy movement across the island. Since Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998, the most significant political development is the flowering of many advocates for basic democratic freedoms, loosely networked and typically functioning as small groups in order to avoid attention from the oppressive security system.

Pope Benedict’s remarks and homilies were punctuated with messages of encouragement for these Cuban democracy activists who live under duress.

In the Furnace

At the basilica in El Cobre, where Pope Benedict prayed before the statue of Our Lady of Charity, he said: “I have also prayed to the Virgin for the needs of those who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, those who are separated from their loved ones or who are undergoing times of difficulty.”

And central to the Pope’s homily at Mass in Havana’s Revolution Square March 28 was an interpretation of the story of Nebuchadnezzar that equated the three men of faith forced into the furnace with the suffering of regime opponents who are in the right.

“In today’s first reading, the three young men persecuted by the Babylonian king preferred to face death by fire rather than betray their conscience and their faith,” the Pope said. “They experienced the strength to ‘give thanks, glorify and praise God’ in the conviction that the Lord of the universe and of history would not abandon them to death and annihilation. Truly, God never abandons his children; he never forgets them. He is above us and is able to save us by his power.”

Because the Church exists to “make others sharers in” Christ, he insisted that the Church have “basic religious freedom, which consists in her being able to proclaim and to celebrate her faith also in public, bringing to others the message of love, reconciliation and peace which Jesus brought to the world.” While progress has been made in Cuba “to enable the Church to carry out her essential mission of expressing her faith openly and publicly,” he said, “this must continue forward, and I wish to encourage the country’s government authorities to strengthen what has already been achieved and advance along this path of genuine service to the true good of Cuban society as a whole.”

Before he departed the island, the Holy Father met with Fidel Castro. At the last moment, Castro requested “a few minutes of his very busy time,” and the two men met at the nunciature for 30 minutes. According to the Vatican, he was full of questions for Pope Benedict, centering on Church liturgy and the pontiff’s functions. He endorsed the prospect of sainthood for Blesseds John Paul II and Mother Teresa.

“Cuba and the world need change,” the Pope concluded in his Havana homily, “but this will occur only if each one is in a position to seek the truth and chooses the way of love, sowing reconciliation and fraternity.”

As the Pope prepared to leave the altar after Mass, chants of “Libertad! Libertad!” — Freedom! Freedom! — rose up from the crowd.

Trish Bailey de Arceo filed several reports from Guanajuato, Mexico.
 Victor Gaetan writes from Washington. He received the 2011

Catholic Press Association’s top award for a Register series on Cuba.

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