Following the Pope in Cuba
Eyewitness Report by Father Jack Wintz

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    Wednesday evening, January 21, 1998

    My strongest memory of this first day of Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba was the sense of excitement in the large crowds who were lining the streets of Vedado, a well-known district close to central Havana. People were waving Cuban and Vatican flags even before the pope had arrived at the airport around 4 p.m. Photos of the pope adorned trees and lightposts. Everyone knew when the pope had arrived at the airport and the ceremonies began.

    Walking through the side streets of this neighborhood, I could hear loudspeakers from radios inside people's houses, carrying first the voice of Fidel Castro, and then the familiar resonant voice of the pope. Shortly after the pope began his presentation, the small group I was with arrived at the offices of Caritas Cuba [a Catholic charitable agency], also located in Vedado, the same neighborhood. A dozen Caritas members were sitting intently around the TV, hanging on every word of John Paul II. Occasionally they voiced enthusiastic approval of what he was saying.

    After the pope had finished, I asked Jose Ramon Perez, one of the Caritas leaders, what he thought of the pope's first address in Cuba. Perez was very happy with the pope's message. In his view the pope's strongest message was that of simply "confirming the Catholic community in Cuba." Perez was also moved by "the pope's call for the whole Cuban community to open their hearts to Christ." Perez also noted that in recent speeches President Castro has shown signs of "compromise towards the Church, as if new possibilities and transitions lie ahead for the Cuban society and Church."

    As the televised airport ceremony came to an end, we began moving with the Caritas people out to the streets, where the papal motorcade would eventually pass by on its way from the airport. The crowds by this time were larger and more exuberant. People were 7- or 8-deep as they lined the streets of Vedado where the pope would pass. Finally, you could see a helicopter circling overhead some distance down the street.

    Within minutes, the voices of the crowd grew louder when the popemobile moved by, carrying within it the waving John Paul II. As the large crowd began dispersing and Jose Ramon Perez began walking back to the Caritas offices, he talked about the "snowball event" that has been happening in recent weeks. Along with other Caritas workers, he had been part of the preparation committee for the papal visit. He felt that the Church's evangelizing in the last few months had been incredible.

    People had been visited by the millions, he said, by door-to-door evangelization. "The Church has gained a space and a moral strength," he added, "that cannot be taken away."

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