The Catholic Thing
A Cuba Diary Print E-mail
By Damiano Rondelli, M.D.   
Saturday, 21 April 2012

Editor’s Note: This morning we bring you some personal reflections of our dear friend Dr. Damiano Rondelli about the pope’s recent pilgrimage to Cuba, which the good doctor witnessed first-hand. As you’ll see by reading his column, he thinks about things, Catholic things, from a deeply personal perspective, something all our writers provide and which is not common in our culture today. It’s already late in our Spring fund drive and we have a considerable way to go. If, as many of you have written, you value this kind of Catholic commentary, please add your help to our efforts. It’s easy, both online and by check. Contribute to The Catholic Thing, today. – Robert Royal 

Bienvenido a Cuba Benedicto XVI was written on bridges along the highways and on posters stuck to the walls of colored buildings in the streets of vieja Havana. The question – and doubt – for many of us flying from the United States to the papal Masses in Santiago and Havana was whether Benedict, the Vicar of Christ, was really welcome.

The first stop was in Santiago de Cuba for the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Virgen de la Caridad de El Cobre, mother of Cuba. The Mass drew an enormous number of people. Everyone was cheering the pope, but most were not familiar with him, or with the Catholic Church.

Schools and factories had been closed for that Monday and students and workers were “invited” to show up at the plaza or along the streets close-by. Those kinds of invitations cannot be refused in Cuba. I was surprised, however, to observe that everyone seemed to listen to the pope, probably the same way they listen to presidents of other countries visiting Cuba in the same plaza. Everyone knows what to do in those circumstances; they do it all the time without complaints, and when it’s over they go home safely.

Nevertheless, it was very easy to talk to the wonderful and friendly Cuban people, especially young university students at the Mass and on the street. They gladly tell you how much they like Cuba and how everything works there. Surely, there was detailed training that maybe started a few months before the papal visit or, more likely, fifty-three years ago.

But they are Latinos and do not easily refuse conversation. They welcome Benedict because they sense that the government does not dislike him. They recall John Paul II in 1998 and that they started celebrating Christmas again thanks to him. They also maintain that, over the last few years, all religions have been allowed freedom in Cuba. However, decades of religious persecution have “surgically” cut off new generations from any information and teaching about Catholicism.

Benedict is welcome, but young people basically know nothing about Jesus Christ.

The pope did not raise his voice against Communism in front of the hundreds of thousand people in Cuba. It would have been an easy speech for someone running for election, but it wouldn’t help the frail Cuban Catholic Church.

Instead, Benedict challenged the people, especially young people, with what the search for truth means, a search to which every person is called, and how the encounter with Christ fulfills this search and gives freedom. He talked of God incarnated as an historic truth that offers dignity to every human being and also, therefore, to people in Cuba.

It is hard to fire up crowds gathered in a Cuban plaza with these messages, but it seems to me that he gave them a seed that will grow thanks to the priests and nuns working humbly among families and young adults, in spite of difficulties and persecution.

In Cuba, dignity has been painted in colors that are positive and socialist – the possibility for everyone to eat, study, work, and be cared for. But that dignity does not refer to individual desires, aspirations, freedom.

Whenever I asked a taxi driver, or a waiter at a restaurant, what they thought about the future of Cuba, they all answered that they did not know. Primarily, they said they cared about their families. And as long as they do what they are told, their families are safe and happy. And this is all that matters.

Benedict told them in Santiago that it is also worthwhile to dedicate their lives to Christ. He didn’t say, “please consider,” he said, “it is worthy” of their lives. Clearly, he loves Cuba as a father who loves and cares about his children: he hopes and prays that they listen and that his words will be remembered even after his departure.

Isn’t this what every father desires? In Havana, Benedict talked about freedom, forgiveness, peace, and the love that can be found only by embracing Christ. And he asked for more steps toward religious freedom so that the Church can announce our faith.

Very limited freedoms, such as permission to own a house or small store, were recently granted, and many Cubans feel that larger changes will occur after Fidel and Raúl Castro. But the future remains obscure. One fear seems to be that a free market will make people happy until the arrival of armies of investors from the United States, Europe, and Asia. Will the Cuban people continue to show up for work, as employees not of the government, but of international companies?

Benedict XVI’s Cuba trip helped reinforce the dialogue and diplomatic negotiations started in 1998 by John Paul II (a seminary was reopened shortly after his visit). The Cuban Church has only 300 priests, and needs food, vocations, and freedom to work everywhere on the island. And these goals can only be achieved with constant and patient negotiation.

When Fidel Castro met with Pope Benedict, he expressed his satisfaction on TV that two people who helped Cuba had been proclaimed saints: Mother Theresa and John Paul II. Though the maximum leader’s assertion was not entirely accurate (they’re not saints officially), it suggests that people who dedicated their lives to Christ may get some acceptance in Cuba, even if one of them helped bring down international Communism.

Benedict had a final request for Raúl Castro: that Cuba be allowed to celebrate Good Friday as a national feast. Raúl later announced it would be an official holiday.

May Good Friday become the way for Cuba to see Christ taking with Him on the Cross the nation’s sorrow, fears, pain, but also the hope and the extraordinary human richness of Cubans, and lead each of them to the strength, peace, and freedom of faith in the Resurrection.

Damiano Rondelli, MD
 is professor of medicine and director of the Stem Cell Transplant Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the editor of Storia delle discipline mediche, a history of the medical profession.

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Comments (4)Add Comment
written by Sue, April 21, 2012
" even if one of them helped bring down international Communism."

As much as he may have tried, international communism was not brought down, though the Berlin Wall may have been. The very setting of your article, Cuba, is joined by China, Venezuela, Vietnam, North Korea, as Communist hold-outs, as well as Russia (which failed to have its Nuremberg, so the KGB weeds grew back), and an assorted number of countries as little commies-in-training.

Including us, unfortunately. Watch the OWS Days of Rage come back much stronger this year, and remember they had their seeds in the 1960s from SDS/Weatherground. Whose leaders were coached by the KGB. In Cuba. So much for the death of International Communism.

A measure of hope can be seen, however, by the reminder JPII gave us by his affiliation with Lech Walesa, as to what is the true meaning of "solidarity". Remeber Solidarnosc? It's not everyone gathering under the umbrella of state to support each other. Much the antithesis - it's the power of people gathering together to support each other and *oppose* the unjust power of the State. Long live Solidarnosc in its genuine meaning.
written by will manley, April 21, 2012
Thank you for this essay. It's instructive to get a "people's" view of the Papal visit. Sadly, the comment that Cuban young people don't know much about Jesus Christ could probably be made about European young people and even American young people. In our post modern and pre-apocalytic world, the Pope's role has largely become a missionary one.
written by Jacob, April 21, 2012
That's exciting that Good Friday is now a Cuban national holiday.

I hope soon all the Cuban people are free to enjoy it!
written by Randall, April 21, 2012
I think Pope Benedict requesting that Good Friday be proclaimed a national holiday is a shrewd move. On the surface it may seem, "oh, how nice, the Cubans can celebrate this holiday." Stone walls are broken down through the action of moisture and frost. Getting religious holidays recognised (Christmas, thanks to JPII, and now Good Friday) are like opening up crevises in the stone wall of Cuban communism. Now there's more space for the Church to draw attention to the Good News of Jesus Christ.

A little yeast leavens the bread - a little water cracks open the stone.

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