Following the Pope in Cuba
Eyewitness Report by Father Jack Wintz

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    Sunday evening, January 25, 1998

    Today on Havana's Plaza of the Revolution, named after Josˇ Marti, close to a million Cubans were taking back their religious freedom, which has been curtailed in many ways for nearly 30 years. It's not clear whether the Castro government will be giving Catholics in the weeks ahead as much freedom as they enjoyed today in the very presence of President Fidel Castro. But, as many have observed, it will be hard to put the genie back into the bottle.

    Today's Cubans at the Plaza were responding with immense freedom and joy to Pope John Paul II's inspiring statements about human rights and the need for a freer and more open society and Church. At times as the pope spoke, it looked and sounded more like a political demonstration than a Sunday homily. Groups of people, including seminarians and religious, were springing to their feet, applauding and shouting approval to the pope's words.

    The pope seemed to enjoy the enthusiasm his words were stirring up. His spirit, too, seemed to rally in response to the crowd. At times his voice was stronger and more energetic than it had been in the previous four days of his visit.

    Whatever the case, it struck me that a new kind of peaceful revolution was taking place in Havana today. Shortly after this exuberant Mass was finished, I asked Auxiliary Bishop Gilberto Fernandez of Miami, Florida,  if indeed a revolution had taken place today on the Plaza of the Revolution.

    He replied that it could at least be described as "part of  a revolution, or the first step of a revolution, with perhaps a lot more yet to come." Born in Cuba, Bishop Fernandez was ordained a priest in Havana in 1959, the same year Castro came to power. For eight years, until 1967, he served in Havana, mainly as a parish priest. These were years during which the Church in Cuba was hampered and persecuted in many ways by the Castro government.

    Father Fernandez left Cuba in 1967 to care for his ailing mother. He ended up in Miami, where he served for 30 years as a diocesan priest. He was recently made auxiliary bishop in Miami. When he returned to Havana on January 21 for the papal visit, this was the first time he had set foot on Cuban soil since he left 30 years ago. It was a very exciting time for him, especially at the Plaza today.

    He told me that he had been on this same Plaza of the Revolution in the 1960's, for events at which Fidel Castro spoke. "But there were not as many people on the Plaza for those occasions as showed up for the pope's Mass today," he said, smiling. "And the crowd then was not as lively and excited as the one today."

    My final thought for this day is this: If the Castro government thought that day it could stamp out or diminish Christianity by its repressive measures toward it over the years, today's massive religious celebration on the Plaza puts that notion to rest. One of the chanted refrains that kept emerging from the crowd today was, "Cuba Catolica, siempre fiel"--"Catholic Cuba, always faithful." Today's celebrations suggest that the Catholic faith in Cuba is not likely to go away.


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