Cuba Is Part of the Pope's Evangelical Mission

Cuba Is Part of the Pope's Evangelical Mission

Commentators are trying to understand just what Pope John Paul II is up to this week. Surely, many muse, the most skillful geopolitical strategist to ever preside in the papal suites must have 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 anti-capitalist economics

Both assessments are wrong, as is clear from the remarkable events taking place here this week. The pope understands there are crucial differences between Poland, which had an active opposition movement and a vibrant Church, and Cuba, where opposition forces have either fled or is intimidated into silence and are only now starting to recover. As for supposed ideological sympathies, the pope has made his case against socialism and in favor of market economics crystal clear.

The point of the papal 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 Fidel Castro in a business suit was this 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, hyper-politicized climate of Cuban life. And what are those forces? This entrepreneur summed it in two words: “Truth and hope.”

This is precisely 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 cliches 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 worldwide 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.”

The year 2000 is important to the pope because he regards time as “a dimension of God, who is himself eternal.” This implies a “duty to sanctify time,” as the Church does with a liturgical year that parallels the calendar year. In this century, the pope says, societies have lapsed as atheism and godless ideologies have warred, quite successfully, for the hearts of men. The turning of the millennium, then, represents an opportunity to put the most brutal century in history behind us, and to look forward to a new flowering of faith.

Applying this agenda in Cuba, he wants to reignite the Catholic faith which has been artificially suppressed by the state. This goal is in the process of becoming a reality, as is obvious from the unbelievable outpouring of emotion, elation, and gratitude on the occasion of his visit.

A 72-year-old Dominican priest here, Carlos Manuel Hernandez, reminded me that Rome never broke relations with Cuba after the revolution. But the revolution took a devastating toll. T the start of 1961, there were 800 priests; by the end of that year there were fewer than 200. Today, 300 priests serve 11 million people. The faith has been difficult due to ideological indoctrination, party loyalties that opposed Catholicism, and material deprivation.

Father Hernandez shares the hope of John Paul II that “Cuba will open itself to the world and the world to Cuba.” Fr. Hernandez's immediate problem is obtaining the material means of evangelization. That means transportation, books, and money to expand charitable and missionary activities. And it requires greater freedom. Here is where the pope's presence can be seen as a bright light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

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, are everywhere to be seen. Seeing my Roman collar, people have stopped me many times on the street with questions about the faith, including “How can I be baptized?” This week, Cubans of all ages wear 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 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.”

The pope writes in his apostolic letter that the Jubilee year indicates a “general 'emancipation' of all the dwellers on the land in need of being freed.” In the Old Testament, he continues, this meant that “every Israelite regained possession of his ancestral land, if he happened to have sold it or lost it by falling into slavery.”

Cuban communism has warred against property ownership and accumulation and bought about the enslavement of all in social system dominated by the state. For that reason, a Jubilee for Cuba cannot help but have political ramifications in the years ahead. As the church strengthens, it is indeed a counterbalance to the omnipotent state; the state then faces the choice of treating it as a crucial part of society or as a social menace. The latter choice appears less viable than ever.

The pope has called for an end to the U.S. embargo of Cuba. If it is lifted, Mr. Castro will have to take responsibility for his own failed socialist experiment, without his favorite whipping boy, the US government. The Cuban people would then have greater contact with the rest of the world. The lifting of the embargo would puncture a huge hole in Mr. Castro's media censorship campaign, allowing the Cuban people greater access to ideas from abroad.

In “toward the Third Millenium,” 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.