Two Cubas, Two Popes

In his first full day in Cuba, Pope Francis – contrary to his usual practice – began the day deliberate, restrained, and careful to stick to his prepared remarks at each formal event. When he worked his way through crowds, however, we saw the other Bergoglio, the broad smile, and the obvious delight in being among “God’s holy and faithful people.” And in the closing events of the day, he put aside prepared texts and spoke – quite passionately and effectively – from the heart. It’s clear that, in Cuba, he feels some need to pass back and forth, between one stance and another.

In part, that’s because Cuba itself is divided in several ways. First, there’s the division between, on the one hand, the regime – the Castro “dynasty,” as the pope’s remarks on arrival delicately hinted, along with the Cuban nomenklatura, the vast bureaucracy and security apparatus – and on the other hand, the Cuban people who, for over fifty years, it has repressed.

Then there’s the literal division of Cubans in that there are two million Cubans in diaspora in the United States, and more throughout Latin America, as exiles in Spain, and still others left behind after Cuba’s Cold War foreign adventures. The pope has already mentioned those he cannot meet with (presumably dissidents) and others “for various reasons,” not least that many of them no longer reside in Cuba.

Before Francis even got to the Plaza of the Revolution on Sunday to celebrate his first Mass, he was rushed by a small group of protesters scattering flyers – who were quickly handcuffed and carted away. Ironically, they wanted to give the pope a letter that asked for an end to violence against dissidents. One seems to have had a few seconds with the pope before the omnipresent security agents intervened – a spectacle of the kind of random brutality the regime routinely carries out caught on camera for the whole world to see.

Francis is quite familiar with such things; he saw them in his own Argentina during the 1970s Dirty War, when a group of generals running the country and facing armed terror groups financed by Cuba, kidnapped, murdered, and “disappeared” a number of people – some innocent, some not. The rebel groups themselves were doing the same on a large scale. Then-Fr. Bergoglio was careful about what he said publicly, but privately took great risks: hiding people, helping them escape abroad, using connections with political and military leaders to get prisoners freed.

As he did then, he has not confronted the Cuban regime directly in his public remarks so far. He has dropped more than a few hints, though, that make it clear where he stands. In his homily for the Sunday Mass, after explaining the way in which true Christian service to others is not self-seeking, he noted that we don’t only have responsibilities person-to-person, we also have responsibilities “as citizens” (ciudadanos).

“Comrades” (compañeros) is the more common word in Marxist systems. “Citizens” sounds like people who may actually have the right to disagree with their government, or even with the whole rationale of a Marxist regime. It was just one of many small ways in which he indicated a difference between the socialist vision of “service” – which inevitably leads to self-serving party members – and a more Christian-inspired vision of man in society.


The Mass itself was glorious – very beautiful music with both a classical and an indigenous Cuban flavor (the composer of the entrance hymn is a Cuban living in exile in Florida). And the Glory of God, after all, is the reason for everything the pope does. He brilliantly reflected on how Christ on the Cross and Mary standing by Him tell us who is really important in this world.

There’s no easy way forward for a country that has done everything imaginable to stamp out any source of independence, dissent, religious liberty, even any real civil society. But the Church, the one substantial alternative institution in Cuba, can prepare the people for the day when the Castro brothers are no more, and can also offer support and hope even in the here and now.

Late in the day, the Holy Father went to the Havana Cathedral to speak to bishops, priests, and religious. There was a prepared text. But after presentations by Cardinal Ortega and a young nun, Francis said their remarks were prophetic, and that he wanted to respond to them rather than just read what he’d written earlier. Handing the typescript to the Cardinal, he remarked, rather casually, that it could be printed and distributed later.

He then launched into one of those discourses – folksy, rambling, but utterly riveting – that are his trademark. Several cardinals who elected him have told me that they were absolutely sure God wanted him to become pope after they heard him speak “from the heart.” That Bergoglio was palpably present as he spoke of evangelical poverty and mercy to the mostly simple nuns who made up his audience. He didn’t just preach poverty and mercy, however, he somehow made real how both force us to trust more fully in God.

As moving as all that was, however, when he spoke to young university students shortly thereafter, it was even more noteworthy. He listened to the welcome by a young man who made an eloquent plea: “Renew our hope that we can find our way. . .in this complex reality.” Francis took notes while he was speaking, and then actually picked out key words to explicate.

Such as “dream,” something young people do a lot. But Francis, in a kind of echo of what St. John Paul II often said, told them to dream big, not to “shrink” (using an idiomatic Argentine expression). To speak with one another about their dreams, whether they are Catholics, Communists, or something else – to pursue the common good, especially in a world where youth unemployment is high, war is destroying “civic friendship,” and ideological narrowness needs to yield to a “culture of encounter.”

I confess to feeling a little uneasy that God did not come into this extemporaneous presentation until the very end, when Pope Francis said he would pray for them and asked them to pray for him. And if you’re not a believer and therefore can’t pray, he said, at least “wish me well.” The young crowd ate it up, and were all with him – with the good humor, the easygoing conversation, and yet the call for high aspirations.

Even when the Castros are gone, Cuba, with its repressive state apparatus yet dynamic people, is going to have difficult days. And it’s only common sense to wonder whether, after a century of evidence to the contrary, Communists and Catholics can really have anything much to say to one another. But the pope planted some seeds Sunday – in many places, in many ways – that cannot help but someday produce unexpected fruits.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.