Positive outcome of Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba

AD2000 Report

The visit by Pope Francis to Cuba last month, following in the footsteps of his predecessors St John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, is already leading to a rebirth of Catholicism in a country where Catholicism has been persecuted since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959.

The visit by Pope Francis to Cuba last month, following in the footsteps of his predecessors St John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, is already leading to a rebirth of Catholicism in a country where Catholicism has been persecuted since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959.

Pope Francis’ visit was pastoral – to give support and encouragement to the oppressed Catholic community – but had a very significant political dimension.

This arose from the fact that Pope Francis mediated the recent restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, and facilitated the relaxation of travel arrangements, allowing millions of Cuban exiles in the United States to visit their relatives in Cuba.

From Castro’s accession to power in 1959, Cuba became the outpost of the Soviet empire in the Western hemisphere, precipitating the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, when US naval vessels blockaded Cuba to prevent Soviet intercontinental missiles being installed on the island.

The break in relations between the US and Cuba followed Castro’s nationalisation of all US businesses in Cuba in 1959 and 1960, including ITT (which ran the telephone system), the oil companies Shell, Esso and Texaco, and US banks.

The US retaliated with trade embargos and the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban emigrés, backed by the United States, in 1961.

Cuba then became a base for communist revolutionary movements in Central and South America, while Castro strutted the international stage as a leader of the “non-aligned movement”.

Within Cuba itself, a repressive totalitarian regime was established, in which all political opposition was crushed, the media were muzzled, religious schools were all nationalised, foreign clergy were expelled, and churches were either closed to closely controlled.

The Catholic Church in Cuba, always one of the weakest in South America, was further weakened.

This was the context in which St John Paul II made his first visit to Cuba in 1998, to strengthen the faithful after a long period of isolation and repression.

Pope Benedict built on this visit, repeating the call of John Paul II for an end to Castro’s political and religious represssion, and for an end to US government-imposed sanctions on Cuba.

Pope Francis has taken this further, facilitating a restoration of diplomatic relations with the US, and bringing about a relaxation of restrictions on both believers and human rights activists.

The Castro government – now led by Fidel Castro’s brother, Raul – is clearly grateful for the role the Church has played in reducing its diplomatic isolation, and has responded positively by permitting the church to operate more freely, establishing churches, hospitals and other facilities.

Schools, however, remain totally under government control.

At a time when the Cuban people are clearly tired of 50 years of economic stagnation, totalitarian government and atheist propaganda, the Church’s role in promoting a genuine rediscovery of the true value of every human person resonates with the people.

In the homily in his first Mass, in Revolution Square, Havana, Pope Francis discussed the day’s Gospel in which the disciples are arguing about who is to be the most important in Jesus’ kingdom.

He recalls that Jesus asks them, “What were you discussing along the way?” Pope Francis recalls that the apostles were embarrassed, because they were arguing about who would be greatest in His kingdom.

Pope Francis said, “Jesus upsets their ‘logic’, their mindset, simply by telling them that life is lived authentically in a concrete commitment to our neighbor. That is, by serving.”

He added, “The call to serve involves something special, to which we must be attentive.

“Serving means caring for their vulnerability. Caring for the vulnerable of our families, our society, our people. Theirs are the suffering, fragile and downcast faces which Jesus tells us specifically to look at and which he asks us to love.

“With a love which takes shape in our actions and decisions. With a love which finds expression in whatever tasks we, as citizens, are called to perform. It is people of flesh and blood, people with individual lives and stories, and with all their frailty, that Jesus asks us to protect, to care for and to serve.

“Being a Christian entails promoting the dignity of our brothers and sisters, fighting for it, living for it. That is why Christians are constantly called to set aside their own wishes and desires, their pursuit of power, before the concrete gaze of those who are most vulnerable.”

On the following day, the Pope went to the city of Holguin, a city located in south-east Cuba, and gave a very penetrating homily on the feast of St Matthew, the tax collector who followed Jesus.

He said, “After the Lord looked upon him with mercy, he said to Matthew: ‘Follow me.’ Matthew got up and followed him. After the look, a word. After love, the mission.

“Matthew is no longer the same; he is changed inside. The encounter with Jesus and his loving mercy transformed him. His table, his money, his exclusion, were all left behind.

“Before, he had sat waiting to collect his taxes, to take from others; now, with Jesus he must get up and give, give himself to others. Jesus looks at him and Matthew encounters the joy of service.

“For Matthew and for all who have felt the gaze of Jesus, other people are no longer to be ‘lived off’, used and abused. The gaze of Jesus gives rise to missionary activity, service, self-giving. Other people are those whom Jesus serves.

“His love heals our short-sightedness and pushes us to look beyond, not to be satisfied with appearances or with what is politically correct.”

In a revealing, but carefully worded comment, he added, “I know the efforts and the sacrifices being made by the Church in Cuba to bring Christ’s word and presence to all, even in the most remote areas.

“Here I would mention especially the ‘mission houses’ which, given the shortage of churches and priests, provide for many people a place for prayer, for listening to the word of God, for catechesis and for community life.”

On the following day, Pope Francis celebrated Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Mercy.

He referred to the Gospel reading of the Annunciation to Mary, and said, “In the Gospel we see Mary, the first disciple.

“A young woman of perhaps between fifteen and seventeen years of age who, in a small village of Palestine, was visited by the Lord, who told her that she was to be the mother of the Savior.

“Mary was far from ‘thinking it was all about her’, or thinking that everyone had to come and wait upon her; she left her house and went out to serve. First she goes to help her cousin Elizabeth.”

Again, he gave a very personal message of hope to the Cuban people. He said, “The Cuban homeland was born and grew, warmed by devotion to Our Lady of Charity.

“As the bishops of this country have written: ‘In a special and unique way she has molded the Cuban soul, inspiring the highest ideals of love of God, the family and the nation in the heart of the Cuban people’.

“This was what your fellow citizens also stated a hundred years ago, when they asked Pope Benedict XV to declare Our Lady of Charity the Patroness of Cuba.”

He added, “In this shrine, which keeps alive the memory of God’s holy and faithful pilgrim people in Cuba, Mary is venerated as the Mother of Charity.

“From here she protects our roots, our identity, so that we may never stray to paths of despair.

“The soul of the Cuban people, as we have just heard, was forged amid suffering and privation which could not suppress the faith, that faith which was kept alive thanks to all those grandmothers who fostered, in the daily life of their homes, the living presence of God, the presence of the Father who liberates, strengthens, heals, grants courage and serves as a sure refuge and the sign of a new resurrection.

“Grandmothers, mothers, and so many others who with tenderness and love were signs of visitation, like Mary, of valor and faith for their grandchildren, in their families.

“They kept open a tiny space, small as a mustard seed, through which the Holy Spirit continued to accompany the heartbeat of this people.”

Pope Francis’ visit will strengthen the spirit of the Cuban people, not only in the present, but in the months and years to come.

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