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
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.