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The Pope in Cuba:
A Call for Freedom

[ Feature 1 Photo]

Pope John Paul II, alongside Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana, waves farewell to the crowds at Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution.

Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.


The enormous turnout of Catholics during the pope’s January 21-25 visit to Cuba shows that the Christian faith has not been stamped out— even after almost 40 years of Communist rule. Nor has the dream of freedom died.
By Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

 Meanwhile, Back in Havana

 ‘A Hurricane of the Spirit’

 The Pope Goes to Santa Clara

 A Mass for Youth in Camagüey

Crowning the Virgin in Santiago

The Pope at Revolution Square

Dream of Freedom

In Havana near the Plaza of the Revolution, a huge image of the Sacred Heart of Jesusn on the National Library serves as a backdrop to the altar.

Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

POPE JOHN PAUL’S first challenge to Cuba’s Catholic community—and to the country’s one-party Communist system—came early in his short address at the welcoming ceremony January 21 at Havana’s José Martí International Airport.

After his introductory words to President Fidel Castro and the Cuban bishops, he assured the faithful at all levels that he felt "closely bound in solidarity" with them. Then the pope tossed in a one-liner that had powerful implications for all those listening: "You are and must be the principal agents of your own personal and national history." The words, heard by Catholics sitting next to radios and TV’s across the country, had special significance for them as subjects of a political system that sacrifices individual freedom on the altar of the State.

Pope John Paul II’s main reason for coming to Cuba, however, was not to call the Communist government to task. Rather, he was there to carry out a pastoral visit to the Catholic community and to deliver a message of evangelization. Evangelization in our era, of course, includes the championing of human rights and religious freedom, especially where such rights are trampled.

And so, standing at the airport only a few yards from President Fidel Castro, the pope assured the Cuban faithful: "I come in the name of the Lord to confirm you in faith, to strengthen you in hope and to encourage you in love....I come...with the desire to give a fresh impulse to the work of evangelization....

"From the very first moment of my presence among you, I wish to say with the same force as at the beginning of my pontificate: ‘Do not be afraid to open your hearts to Christ.’ Allow him to come into your lives, into your families, into society...."

Addressing himself to all Cubans, the pope added: "My best wishes are joined with the prayer that this land may offer everyone a climate of freedom, mutual trust, social justice and lasting peace. May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba...."

So began a five-day papal visit that would leave behind a dramatically revitalized Catholic and Christian community in Cuba. Most observers that I spoke to in Cuba also felt convinced that a corner had been turned on the road to freedom, for both the Cuban Church and society, and there could be no going back!

Meanwhile, Back in Havana

When the pope’s plane arrived at the airport, I was already milling about the immense, high-spirited, flag-waving crowd clogging the sidewalks of Vedado, an old, well-known and rather affluent district near central Havana. Posters of the pope adorned light posts and the walls of buildings. The papal motorcade would pass by this way in an hour or two on its way from the airport.

[ feature 1 photo]

Perched on Havana wall, Cubans await Pope's motorcade from the airport on January 21.

Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

Unable to pass through the crowds, I started walking with a few colleagues along the much quieter side streets toward the offices of Caritas Cuba, an international Catholic charitable organization. As we walked along, we suddenly heard Fidel Castro’s voice drifting out from television sets and radios inside the homes. Castro was concluding his welcoming address to the pope at the airport. Soon we began to hear the familiar, resonant voice of Pope John Paul II.

Shortly after the pope began his presentation, our small group arrived at the offices of Caritas Cuba. A dozen Caritas men and women were sitting around a television set, intently hanging onto every word of the pope. Occasionally, one or another would throw an arm up and voice enthusiastic approval of what the Holy Father was saying.

After the pope’s address, I asked José Ramón Perez, one of the Caritas leaders, what he thought of the pope’s first words in Cuba. Perez was very happy with the pope’s message. In his view, the pope’s strongest theme was his "confirming the faith of the Catholic community of Cuba" and his bold "calling upon all Cubans to open their hearts to Christ."

Perez also pointed out that, in Fidel Castro’s speeches in recent months and weeks, the Cuban leader has shown signs of "compromise" toward the Church—as if interesting new possibilities and transitions lie ahead for the Cuban society and Church.

As the televised airport ceremony came to an end, all those in the Caritas offices began heading out toward a large street a few blocks away where the papal motorcade would be passing by on its way from the airport. The crowds along the street were even larger now. People were standing seven or eight deep. Many others were perched on walls holding Vatican and Cuban flags, balloons and photos of the pope.

Finally, a helicopter came into view up the street and began circling overhead. Within minutes the voices, cheers and chants of the crowd grew louder as the popemobile came into sight, carrying within it the waving John Paul II.

The pope received a wildly enthusiastic welcome from the youth of Cuba.

‘A Hurricane of the Spirit’

After the crowds dispersed, I began walking back to the Caritas offices with José Ramón Perez. Perez began talking about the "snowball effect" of the Cuban Church’s evangelizing efforts. "It has been incredible!" he said. Along with other Caritas members, Perez had been part of the preparation committee for the papal visit. Throughout the island nation in recent months, he pointed out, "People have been visited by the millions by door-to-door evangelization." He also referred to large public Masses and processions in honor of the Virgin of Charity, the patroness of Cuba.

"The image of the Virgin of Charity has been everywhere—even in the mountains!" Perez said. "The Church has gained a space and a moral strength that cannot be taken away," he added.

Two days later I ran into an elderly, vigorous Spanish Vincentian priest, Father Amador Saiz, who had been serving for some months at Havana’s parish of the Miraculous Medal. He described recent evangelizing efforts of the Church as a "huracán del Espíritu" (a hurricane of the Spirit), affirming that "more effective evangelization has happened in the last few months in Cuba than has taken place the last 80 years!"

The Pope Goes to Santa Clara

The highlight of the pope’s second day in Cuba (January 22) was the Mass in Santa Clara, a city of some 200,000 located 160 miles east of Havana. The 10:30 a.m. Mass, which was celebrated on an athletic field, drew a great crowd estimated at 100,000.

The pope was greeted with wild enthusiasm when he arrived for the celebration. During the Mass, however, at least from where I was standing near the back of the crowd, the pope’s voice during his homily sounded weak and without enthusiasm, almost fading into nothing at times.

[ Feature Photo 3 ]

At Santa Clara, people scattered along the hillside observe the papal Mass down below on the athletic field.

Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

I wondered whether he would be able to hold the crowd’s attention. A number of people seemed to be leaving or at least taking a break. Still others, because of the heat or lack of water, had fainted and were being carried on stretchers to Red Cross tents nearby.

As the Mass continued, however, I realized that, by far, the majority of the people were hanging in there with the Holy Father. Walking about the crowd, I noted that a good number of people were devoutly following their program booklets (something like our missalettes) distributed by the Diocese of Santa Clara. There were similar booklets at all the Masses of the papal visit.

These booklets contained not only the hymns of the Mass but also a short biography of the pope and a brief explanation of the Eucharist and how it is central to the Catholic faith, as well as prayers, including one to the Virgin of Charity. In effect, these attractive booklets served as vehicles of religious instruction in a country where the faith, for many, has been dormant for nearly 40 years.

By Communion time the mood of the crowd had picked up and emotions seemed high as a good number received Communion and as the Mass moved toward its conclusion. The bright, bouncy, upbeat Caribbean music for which Cuba is famous helped bring life to the crowds.

The spirit of the still huge crowd was high as it began dispersing. One man, approximately 70 years old, began conversing with me in broken English. He had found the homily of the pope very strong. "The pope’s message opened the minds of the people," he said. "We have been living in a closed society." "Do you expect more openness in the future?" I asked him. In reply, the man nodded a clear yes.

Later, studying a printed copy of the pope’s homily, I saw that his message was indeed strong and challenging. Speaking on the theme of the family, the Holy Father pointed out that for centuries the Cuban family was "solidly founded upon Christian principles." Today, however, families in Cuba face many of the "crises which are affecting society itself," such as divorce, "an anti-birth mentality" and the crime of abortion.

The pope singled out another problem particular to Cuba: the separation of children from their parents during their high school years. Educated away from home in boarding-school situations, the young students easily lose their traditional family values. Such situations, the pope said, "result in the spread of promiscuous behavior, loss of ethical values,...premarital sexual relations at an early age and easy recourse to abortion."

The part of John Paul II’s homily that received the greatest applause from the crowd at Santa Clara was when he called for the return of Catholic education to Cuba. "Parents must be acknowledged as the first and foremost educators of their children," the pope insisted. "We are speaking of an irreplaceable and inalienable duty and right. It is true in the area of education that public authority has certain rights and duties, since it must serve the common good. Nonetheless, this does not give public authority the right to take the place of parents.

"Consequently, parents...should be able to choose for their children the pedagogical method, the ethical and civic content and the religious inspiration which will enable them to receive an integral education," the Holy Father asserted.

To judge the pope’s performance at Santa Clara, one must look beyond the pontiff’s faltering voice and appearance to the powerful impact of his message. That message was enhanced by being televised live throughout the country, as would be the case with the remaining three Masses as well.

A Mass for Youth in Camagüey

The next morning (January 23) the pope went to Camagüey, Cuba’s third-largest city (after Havana and Santiago). The pope received a cheering, flag-waving and wildly enthusiastic welcome from the youth of Cuba, who were the principal guests at this eucharistic gathering.

Though I was unable to go to Camagüey to attend this Mass, I watched parts of it on television back in Havana. It was clearly a powerful event that could leave a deep imprint on families across the country. I was deeply moved as I saw a handsome young Cuban adult give an eloquent, courageous and faith-filled welcome to the pope.

"Holy Father,..." he said, "we know you have lived with pain and suffering. We know you have felt, as we have too, the temptation of leading a soft life and of abandoning Christ. But we are certain that the power of Jesus’ resurrection has triumphed in you, as it has in many of us who are standing here this morning."

I could not help thinking that this confident young Cuban was providing an alternate model for the youth of Cuba, a model quite different from those representing only a secular or Marxist ideology.

The eucharistic celebration itself was full of energy and youthful electricity. The music that rose from this immense demonstration of faith was popular, lively and vibrant. The whole event was a dramatic symbol of hope regarding the future of Cuba and the rebirth of the Christian faith in this nation!

Later in the Mass, as I watched the televised liturgy with a group of people at a Havana parish, I was touched by the affection with which the Holy Father warmly embraced the Cuban young people who approached him one by one at the sign of peace. Throughout his pontificate, I recalled, this pope has cultivated the world’s youth, seeing in them the Church of tomorrow. Then I saw something that touched me even more: In front of me stood a Cuban mother of two Catholic teenagers. She was brushing tears from her eyes as she observed the affection and affirmation with which the pope was hugging the young Cuban Catholics in Camagüey.

In his homily at that Mass, the pope held up high ideals for the young men and women in Cuba. He described many of them as "victims of cultural models which are empty of meaning—or of an ideology which does not offer clear moral guidelines....Christians sometimes have to suffer marginalization and persecution— at times heroically—because of moral choices which are contrary to the world’s behavior."

At the end of the homily, the aging pope gave to the youth the motto with which he began his pontificate: "‘Do not be afraid to open your hearts to Christ.’ With great affection, I leave you this motto and exhortation, asking you to pass it on with the rest of Cuba’s youth."

Crowning the Virgin in Santiago

Santiago de Cuba is the country’s original capital and its second-largest city. Under a sweltering, tropical sun, the papal Mass was celebrated at the Plaza of Antonio Maceo, whose imposing statue stood nearby. The pope referred to Antonio Maceo (died 1896) in his homily as "the great patriot of the East who once said, ‘He who loves not God, loves not his country.’"

The special focus of the Santiago Mass (January 24) was the Virgin of Charity, the patroness of the island. The Virgin’s celebrated and ancient image is closely bound up with Cuba’s national identity. The famous image, which is normally kept at the Shrine of Cobre some seven miles outside the city of Santiago, stood only a few yards away from the altar during the pope’s Mass.

[ feature 1 photo 5 ]

At the papal Mass in Santiago, seminarians wave a Cuban flag on a cross before the statue of Cuban patriot Antonio Maceo.

Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

The pope referred to the Virgin of Charity of Cobre often during his homily. "From her shrine, not far from here," he affirmed, "the queen and mother of all Cubans—regardless of race, political allegiance or ideology—guides and sustains, as in times past, the steps of her sons and daughters toward our heavenly homeland."

Pope John Paul II pointed out further that "Cuban history is marked by wonderful displays of love for the patroness of Cuba, at whose feet the figures of humble natives, two Indians and a Negro, symbolize the rich plurality of this people. El Cobre, where the shrine is located, was the first place in Cuba where freedom was won for slaves." He also noted that some of the great Cuban patriots and their companions had struggled for national independence under the protection of the Virgin.

After the pope’s homily and the profession of faith, a coronation ceremony took place. Pope John Paul II placed a crown on the head of the Virgin of Charity (after having placed one also upon the infant Jesus in her arms).

The crowning of Cuba’s most sacred image had as much to do with Cuba’s history, culture and Catholic identity as with Marian doctrine. What was happening in Santiago, Cuba, was something of great spiritual, cultural and political significance.

The crowning of the Virgin of Charity by the pope was more than an act of popular piety, although it was certainly that as well. Perhaps most of all, the gesture was a dramatic reclaiming of Cuba’s Catholic identity. After decades of religious suppression during which Catholics had to hide their images of the Virgin of Charity (and the Sacred Heart of Jesus) in the back rooms of their homes, this ceremony was a public re-embracing of this celebrated Catholic image so loved by millions of Cubans. In a sense, they were taking back their Catholic faith and religious freedom.

This could never have happened 10 years ago. The action had no precedent in Communist Cuba, which until recently had declared itself an atheistic state. Now—in a public plaza before the eyes of hundreds of thousands of Cubans (not to mention national and international television audiences)—this symbol of Cuban Catholic identity was being honored and reclaimed by no one less than the pope himself!

[ Feature 1 Photo]
After the Mass, the newly crowned image of the Virgin of Charity moves through the crowd.

Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

The influence of the papal gesture went even further. In Cuba hundreds of thousands of followers of Santería also revere the Virgin of Charity. Santería, signifying the "way of the saints," is a religious cult widely followed in Santiago and throughout Cuba. It is a mixture of Catholicism (especially its love of the saints) and African religious beliefs which were carried to Cuba from West Africa by the slaves.

When practitioners of Santería see the Virgin of Cobre, they may see more than the Mother of Jesus; many also see Ochún, the Yoruba goddess of love, of joy, of abundance. Hence, the influence of the Virgin of Charity reaches beyond Roman Catholicism.

The Pope at Revolution Square

Would there be a Catholic revolution at Havana’s Revolution Square? That question was in the back of my mind as I found a place at the papal Mass on January 25 at Havana’s La Plaza de la Revolución José Martí. This huge Plaza of the Revolution is the very place where Fidel Castro has made some of his most famous speeches extolling the revolution he brought about in 1959. President Castro was present at the Mass.

A large statue of the great Cuban patriot, José Martí (1853-1895), after whom the plaza is named, looks down over the square from a hill sloping up to the right. In his homily, the pope would quote Martí’s words: "Every people needs to be religious" and "An irreligious people will die...."

[ Feature 1 Photo]
A boy in Havana holds a prayer card with images of the Virgin of Charity and the pope.

Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

A huge eight-story painting of the Sacred Heart of Jesus had been mounted on the National Library building and served as a backdrop to the papal altar. An inscription above the painting read in Spanish: "Jesus Christ, I put my trust in you." This public display of Christian faith seemed ironic—or maybe the better word is miraculous—given the Cuban government’s suppression of public expressions of religion for nearly 40 years.

As many as a million Cubans were waiting for Pope John Paul II to arrive at the Plaza and begin his final Mass in Cuba. Despite the overcast sky and cool temperature, the mood was festive and the pitch of excitement very high.

The highlight of the pope’s message was his repeated call for religious freedom, which seemed to be the very message the vast audience was waiting to hear. "The state," affirmed the pope, "...should encourage a harmonious social climate and a suitable legislation which enables every person and every religious confession to live their faith freely...." Whenever the pope’s words touched on freedom, groups of people, including seminarians and religious, jumped to their feet and shouted approval.

Twenty-eight times, it was reported, the pope’s speech was interrupted with shouts of "Libertad! Libertad!"—"Freedom! Freedom!" The spirited interplay between the pope and people made the whole event seem more like a political demonstration than a Sunday homily.

Besides calling for more freedom for Cuba, the pope also had some strong criticism for countries like the United States. He blasted "a certain capitalist neoliberalism which subordinates the human person to blind market forces," denouncing the small group "of countries growing exceedingly rich at the cost of the increasing impoverishment of a great number of other countries."

In other talks during his visit, such as in his farewell speech that night at the airport, the pope also made strong statements against the U.S. trade embargo, though without mentioning the United States by name.

During his homily at the Plaza of the Revolution, however, the pope kept hammering away at the freedom theme. "The attainment of freedom in responsibility is a duty which no one can shirk," he insisted. "For Christians, the freedom of the children of God is not only a gift and a task, but its attainment also involves an invaluable witness and a genuine contribution to the journey toward the liberation of the whole human race. This liberation cannot be reduced to its social and political aspects, but rather reaches its fullness in the exercise of freedom of conscience, the basis and foundation of all human rights."

Dream of Freedom

After the pope’s final Mass in Havana came to a close and the immense crowd began dispersing, I reflected again on the question I had at the beginning: Had Catholic Cuba just carried out a kind of revolution on the very Plaza of the Revolution? The yearning for freedom, expressed in the repeated cries for "Libertad" across the vast plaza, was unmistakable.

A few minutes later, I ran into Auxiliary Bishop Gilberto Fernandez of Miami, Florida. Bishop Fernandez is a native of Cuba. He was ordained a priest in Havana in 1959—the same year Castro came to power. Serving as a priest in Havana until 1967, he had experienced the curtailment of religious freedom at the hands of the Castro government. To care for his ailing mother, Father Fernandez left Cuba in 1967, ending up as a diocesan priest in Miami, where he was just made a bishop in late 1997. His return to Cuba on January 21 for the pope’s visit was the first time he had set foot on Cuban soil in some 30 years.

The last five days had been very exciting days for him, especially these last hours on the Plaza. Did he think a revolution had happened here today? I asked. "Well, I think you could call it a part of a revolution—or the first step of a revolution," he replied.

Bishop Fernandez also told me that he had been on this same Plaza of the Revolution in the 1960’s. He had been there many times to hear the young Fidel Castro speak. "But, you know," he said smiling, "there were not as many people on the Plaza then as showed up for the pope’s Mass today—and the crowds then were not nearly as lively and excited as the one today!"

It’s hard to imagine that the dream of freedom which so excited the vast assembly on La Plaza de la Revolución can easily be denied them. Most Cubans, it seems fair to say, hope that in the not-too-distant future the pope’s wish and prayer "that this land may offer everyone a climate of freedom" will be fulfilled.

Jack Wintz, O.F.M., is senior editor of this publication and editor of Catholic Update. He is also author of Lights: Revelations of God’s Goodness (St. Anthony Messenger Press), an inspirational book exploring the spirit of St. Francis.

See the Special Report on the Pope's Visit to Cuba.

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