Christmas Comes To Cuba

Christmas Comes To Cuba

In anticipation of Pope John Paull II's visit next month, Fidel Castro will permit Christmas to be celebrated in Cuba for the first time in three decades. This symbolic gesture may foretell an eventual Cuban liberalization, not only in the practice of faith but also of the political and economic rights, which the Pope considers integral to the church's social teaching.

Looking back at the forces that broke up Communist control of Eastern Europe, it's hard to ignore the role of the papacy's power of moral suasion. Now, the Pope's is setting his sights on Cuba, which is ruled by one of the few surviving regimes that adheres to Communism.

Still, the Pope has spoken out against American economic sanctions on ground that they harm people more than governments. His hope is that moral diplomacy will succeed where 33 years of Washington-backed sanctions and espionage have failed - and there is reason to believe he is right.

The Pope is expected to meet with Mr. Castro during a five-day visit that begins on Jan. 21, and Mr. Castro has indicated that he will attend the Holy Father's Mass in Havana's Revolution Square.

Cuba was once a predominantly Roman Catholic country. After the 1959 revolution, though, the church's properties were nationalized, its schools closed, and members of the clergy were brutalized and jailed. In 1962, the Cuban Government embraced atheism as official doctrine. Anyone associated with Christianity was considered a counter-revolutionary.

In 1969, the Government forbade public recognition of Christmas. Even private Christmas trees and decorations were regarded with suspicion. All people were required to work on Christmas Day, ostensibly on the ground that religious trivialities could not be allowed to interfere with sugar production.

Today, the landscape is very different. Religious worship was legalized in 1991, and Cubans are now increasingly open about their Christianity. Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega has held open-air Masses in Havana, attended by thousands, and multitudes have been allowed to publicly venerate the image of Blessed Mother as the island's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre.

The Pope's coming visit is helping to further revive interest in religion. As in Poland and Nicaragua before that, his visit may also spark greater public demand for the recognition of human rights and freedoms.

Time and again, the power of religious faith to unsettle even the most tyrannical of regimes has been underestimated. Faith provides people a sense of morality, duty, and loyalty that extends beyond the nationalist and ideological claims of governments.

Add to the mix the moral standing of Pope John Paul II. He is an anti-Communist, but not cold war ideological sense. For him, the essential political struggle is between systems that respect essential human rights and dignity, and those that do not.

Cuba may no longer present a security threat, but the Pope's desire to re-Catholicize Cuba is based on something more fundamental than geo-politics. He sees moral and spiritual issues as primary. That is why his call for change may again be heard in a place where other voices have fallen on deaf ears.