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.