Pope's Visit to Cuba: Historic Visit at Vital Time

March 25 issue preview of the Holy Father's trip this week.

PRAYERFUL PREPARATION. Cuban Catholics carry candles and pictures of Pope Benedict
XVI during a Stations of the Cross procession in Havana March 7 in advance of the Holy
Father’s visit.
PRAYERFUL PREPARATION. Cuban Catholics carry candles and pictures of Pope Benedict XVI during a Stations of the Cross procession in Havana March 7 in advance of the Holy Father’s visit. (photo: Reuters/Stringer)

WASHINGTON — Pope Benedict XVI’s pilgrimage to Cuba March 26-28 has demonstrated the breathtaking power of the universal Church to erase borders.

When the bishop of Santiago de Cuba, the easternmost city in Cuba, realized he needed more priests for the expected surge in confessions around the Holy Father’s visit, he turned to his northern neighbors in the Archdiocese of Miami.

No matter that relations between the United States and Cuba remain tense, as they have been for more than 50 years. “Reconciliation” is the theme emphasized by the Church in both countries.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami recently shared Bishop Dionisio Garcia’s request with a gathering of archdiocesan priests, according to Father Juan Sosa, the Cuban-born pastor of St. Joseph Church in Miami Beach and coordinator of the annual “Ecclesiastical/Lay Encounter,” which brings Catholic priests and laypeople from Cuba together with Catholic Cuban exiles.

“I’m already going,” said Father Sosa. “But I think any priest with a passport who can get the paperwork done [for a visa] and has two weeks available is welcome to help.”

More than 300 pilgrims from the archdiocese — together with an undetermined number of priests — will travel by chartered plane with Archbishop Wenski to participate in Pope Benedict’s island visit, which follows the Holy Father’s three days in León, Mexico.

Other U.S. Church leaders greeting Pope Benedict include Cuban-American Bishop Octavio Cisneros, an auxiliary bishop of Brooklyn, N.Y., representing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), together with Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., chairman of Catholic Relief Services; Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace; and Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, the Mexican-born auxiliary bishop of Seattle.

The Holy Father’s pilgrimage to Cuba honors the 400th anniversary of the discovery of Our Lady of Charity (La Virgen de la Caridad), a miraculous statue of Mary cradling Jesus found floating in a bay in northeastern Cuba by three fishermen in 1612. The 16-inch-tall statue stands today in the Basilica of El Cobre, a mountainous mining town near Santiago de Cuba.

Our Lady of Charity was named the patron saint of Cuba by Pope Benedict XV in 1916. Pope John Paul II crowned the Virgin and Child during his visit to Cuba 14 years ago.

In honor of the jubilee, a replica of the Virgin was carried across the island between 2010 and 2011, allowing millions of Cubans to see her. She is venerated by Cubans of all backgrounds, even by followers of Santeria, a religious tradition of African origin that was developed in Cuba. Her shrine has been the island’s most sacred site for pilgrims, many of whom leave votive gifts. Ernest Hemingway offered his 1954 Nobel Prize for literature to the Virgin, having written his best-known novel, The Old Man and the Sea, in Cuba.

Still Repressive

Pope Benedict’s trip begins with a March 26 Mass in Santiago de Cuba’s Revolution Square. The next morning, he will pray at El Cobre Basilica, then fly to Havana, where he is scheduled to meet with President Raul Castro. On March 28, the Holy Father will celebrate Mass in Havana’s Revolution Square.

The Holy Father’s pilgrimage comes at a time of significant uncertainty about the country’s future and great suffering for many who advocate greater freedom.

The communist regime that governs Cuba has allowed the Church a measure of autonomy to minister to the poor and sick, to preach the Gospel within Church space, and to maintain Church buildings — some initiatives first proposed by Pope John Paul II.

“Pope Benedict’s visit is an expansion of Pope John Paul II’s trip,” Father Sosa observed. “It is a growth, or development, along the same path.”

He explained, “Pope John Paul publicly asked for some specific things, including more access to the people and more access to education, as well as for means of communication for the bishops. We still are not allowed much access to education, but we have missionary programs, catechism and library programs in each diocese on the island.”

During the first 30 years of Fidel Castro’s revolution, the Church experienced relentless persecution. Most priests were driven from the island, Church property was nationalized, Cuba was officially atheistic, believers were mocked and marginalized, and state policies such as abortion on demand for anyone of any age was considered evidence of Cuba’s “progressive” health system.

Today, the regime allows the Church leadership a measure of freedom. For example, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, archbishop of Havana since 1981, received permission for the jubilee procession of Our Lady of Charity. The cardinal also won approval to build a new seminary (the cornerstone was blessed by Pope John Paul II), inaugurated in late 2010 — the first new Church construction since 1959, when Castro took power.

Two years ago, the party leadership sought the cardinal’s assistance to defuse tense stand-offs between non-violent women, known as the Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco) who marched on Sundays after Mass, and angry mobs mobilized to jeer at the women. They march to protest the fate of jailed male relatives, most of them political prisoners, locked up for daring to demand greater respect for human rights.

In 2010, after a political prisoner, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, died as the result of a prolonged hunger strike, the Ladies in White grew more defiant, and their tormentors became more aggressive, blocking them from their silent, weekly walks. Images of these near riots were broadcast internationally.

Cardinal Ortega stepped in to protect the group, in a gesture that resulted in the government eventually releasing more than 100 prisoners, although only a few were allowed to remain in Cuba, and most were forced with their families into exile in Spain. At least one prisoner, Ariel Sigler Amayo, who became paralyzed in jail as a result of poor medical care, was, after prolonged suffering, allowed to come to the U.S. for treatment, where he has made an apparently miraculous recovery.

So, from one perspective, the Church in Cuba has forged a path between conflict and concession in dealing with the Cuban government in order to more effectively defend the powerless, including prisoners.

Yet the Cuban regime remains oppressive and intolerant of dissent — a fact that the Pope must address during his visit, say many devout Catholic Cubans in the U.S. and Cuba.

“My fear,” said German Miret, a lay leader in Miami who left Cuba as a young Catholic activist in 1962, “is that the regime shows Pope Benedict a ‘Potemkin village’ in Cuba — that’s a phrase from Russian history, when Catherine the Great was shown wonderful villages in the Crimea by her generals just so she would think life was good there. Reportedly, a similar effort is under way around El Cobre, where poor people who live in old houses without electricity are being evicted and the houses leveled so the Pope won’t see the poverty.”

Miret would not consider taking the trip to Cuba, although he is an active parishioner in the Archdiocese of Miami. “I don’t want to ask permission to go back to my country. As long as there’s a communist system, I’m a political exile; and an exile can’t go back to a place where he would be persecuted.”

‘Our True Liberation’

The ongoing tension between the regime and its opponents will invariably result in more clashes.

Only last month [Feb. 20], Bishop Garcia, who also heads the Conference of Cuban Bishops, had to bring vans to the basilica in El Cobre to free 14 Ladies in White who took refuge in the church when threatened by police. One of the women, trying to get to the church, was detained by police and later suffered a miscarriage, which she blames on police brutality.

According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, in recent weeks, Cuban political police have arrested Ladies in White and other human-rights activists across the island as they tried to attend Sunday Mass. Protestants as well as Catholics are being targeted, the organization reported.

As a result of this continuous harassment, many believers in Cuba and abroad are beseeching Pope Benedict to meet with representative Ladies in White and to speak out against violations of human rights.

The award-winning Cuban-American writer Carlos Eire, who holds the chair in Catholic studies at Yale University, wrote a moving open letter to the Holy Father, posted March 5 at National Review Online.

“Your public acknowledgment of the Ladies in White could change the course of history,” Eire wrote. “They pray for that; we all pray for it too, along with them. I, a beggar, driven from my homeland 50 years ago, join the bold Ladies in begging.”

Miret agrees with Eire. “I’m afraid the government will look good because it is willing to honor the Pope, but human rights won’t be brought up. I do not oppose the Pope’s visit — the people need him — but I am against the Holy Father ignoring what is wrong,” explained Miret. “He should meet with the Ladies in White.”

The leading Catholic democracy activist in Cuba, Oswaldo Paya, hopes to be present for the Pope’s visit. As the founder of the Christian Liberation Movement in the 1980s, he led a grassroots effort, the Varela Project, which collected approximately 25,000 signatures from Cubans requesting a referendum on basic liberties such as the rights to expression and association, free elections and free enterprise. Much of the movement’s leadership was jailed in 2003; Paya is under 24/7 surveillance by Cuban security operatives.

He confirmed that the communist government is aggressively trying to intimidate regime opponents. By telephone from Havana, he told the Register: “In a very nasty style, like the Cultural Revolution in China, police are using terror against families who cannot defend themselves, especially the Ladies [in White] and government dissidents. They are saying we are not allowed to go to the ceremony of the Pope.”

“But,” Paya continued, “the Pope is unity. The Pope is charity. This message is very important to us because God is our true liberation; and as we take risks for freedom, God is always reminding us that we have it, in us through him.”

Said Paya, “Everybody is doing his own best in the world, and the Catholics who don’t know each other — we are united; and the Pope is the sign of that unity.”

The Register went to press prior to the Pope’s journey to Mexico and Cuba.

Look for live coverage at NCRegister.com.

Victor Gaetan writes from Washington. He received the

2011 Catholic Press Association’s top award for a Register series on Cuba.