Commentators are still trying to understand just what Pope John Paul II was up to in visiting Cuba. Surely, many muse, the most skillful geopolitical strategist to ever preside in the papal suites must have had a secret political agenda. Is he trying to do for Cuba what he did for Poland? Or, as several dispatches have suggested, does he feel an ideological attachment to Fidel Castro’s anticapitalist economics?
Both assessments are wrong, as is clear from the remarkable events that took place in Cuba the week of the papal visit. The point of his visit was illustrated to me by a local underground entrepreneur who is a very poor father of two. He pointed out that the first time he had seen Mr. Castro in a business suit was that week. He interpreted this as a sign of deference and a reminder that there are some forces more powerful than politics–despite the four-decade-old, hyperpoliticized climate of Cuban life. And what are those forces? This entrepreneur summed them up in two words: “Truth and hope.”
This is what the Pope intended to bring. He knows that this is the least Catholic nation in Latin America. At the same time, the people here are starved for meaning that extends beyond tiresome clichés about the “revolution” and the centrality of the state. It is a nation hungry for the Gospel and for the normalcy that allows its discovery.
The pontiff’s agenda has never been a secret. His plan is available for all to read in an apostolic letter, issued to the church faithful in 1994, called “Toward the Third Millennium” on the preparation for the Jubilee Year of 2000. The letter is a clarion statement explaining that the primary purpose of his visits world-wide is pastoral. He wants to prepare the church for a cleansing of sin and a spiritual renaissance to reinvigorate the faithful, and to seek the conversion of souls in advance of the turn of the millennium. This is, he writes, “the hermeneutical key of my Pontificate.” Further, the turning of the millennium represents an opportunity to put the most brutal century behind us, and look forward to a new flowering of faith.
Applying this agenda in Cuba, the pope wanted to reignite the Catholic faith, which has been artificially suppressed by the state. This goal is in the process of becoming a reality, as was obvious from the outpouring of emotion, elation, and gratitude on the occasion of his visit.
The light began appearing even before the pope arrived. In advance of the visit, and under Vatican pressure, last year Mr. Castro declared Christmas a state holiday for the first in three decades. Religious signs and crucifixes, banished from public view until recently, were everywhere to be seen. Seeing my Roman collar, people stopped me many times on the street with questions about the faith, including “How can I be baptized?” The week of the pope’s visit Cubans of all ages wore the papal colors of white and yellow.
It seems clear that the Church is coming alive in Cuba, exactly as the pope has hoped. Thus the primary goal of his visit is being achieved. But that pastoral intent can have unpredictable cultural and political effects as well. The pope’s message of liberation from sin is not just for the citizenry of Cuba. He undoubtedly has hopes for the conversion of the state-affiliated oppressors as well. The speaker of the Cuban Parliament now respectfully refers to him as the “Holy Father” and “His Holiness.”
In “Toward the Third Millennium,” the Pope notes that the secular Roman historians of Jesus’s own time were caught up with “more stirring events” and “famous personages” and “first made only passing, albeit significant references to Him.” The course of history was altered immutably nonetheless. So it is with this visit of the Vicar of Christ to a nation still in chains.