Isbel Diaz Torres

The Revolution Square was not full for the Pope's Mass. Photo: Isbel Diaz Torres

HAVANA TIMES, March 29 — “Who had the idea that people would be able hold out here from as early as 6:00 am?” rhetorically asked a man as he was leaving. He was one of those who, by the hundreds, walked away from Revolution Square just as Pope Ratzinger began his Mass on Wednesday.

I had just arrived after having made a wide detour to get into the square, since almost all of the access streets were inexplicably blocked. “You can’t tell if these people want the plaza filled or not,” said one woman to her daughter, who in turn demanded the older woman to stop complaining so much and keep on walking.

The square wasn’t filled. In fact there weren’t enough people to even cover the central area, which was the reserved section that had been fenced off for workers from various workplaces, those who had been diligently “summoned” by the government to show up early.

One might think that they were trying to position them so that their presence would prevent others from occupying that site, but these people were the first ones to escape from the sides.

The truth is that even with workers who signed their pledges to attend on their jobs, the students who had been invited and the plain clothes security agents mixed in with the people, they couldn’t hide the large gaps in the area.

“If I were sitting in the shade, maybe I’d be able to see. But with this sun you can’t see anything; and with that sound system, you can’t hear anything either,” said one young guy to his girlfriend while they were leaving.

Another more disciplined fellow speaking more to himself said: “As soon as they say “amen,” I’m outta here like an arrow,” while watching one other unrepentant individual collecting soda cans.

Picking up aluminum cans. Foto: Jimmy Roque Martínez

The thousands of printed programs that were left in a big pile at the end of the Mass were evidence that the attendance was below the organizer’s estimates.

I don’t know what impression was projected on TV, but my perception was that there was very little enthusiasm for the event. People were sleeping on the ground while the Pope spoke about “the truth,” while others laughed loudly or talked about more mundane issues than “salvation” or “virtue.”

The only people who seemed to be aware of what was going were those who were closest to the main stage (which was actually quite far off since it is always separated from people by a wide avenue).

None of this surprises me. I think the Catholic Church failed by putting the organization of the event in the hands of the government. What’s more, to be fair, the whole thing should have been aimed primarily at the audience of practicing Catholics, while leaving it free for whoever else wished to attend.

The excessive and abusive control measures, the closing of businesses (since Tuesday afternoon there was no bread in most of the bakeries in the Vedado centrally located neighborhood), and the suspension of the capital’s public transportation while the Pope was still in Santiago, did nothing to help create a relaxed or enthusiastic atmosphere.

Though the Pope was flying back to Europe in the afternoon, at 6:00 p.m. public transport still hadn’t reappeared on the streets of Havana, which were wet from the rain.

Another oddity: Can anyone explain what the purpose was of covering the bottles of alcohol in stores with dark sheets of plastic? Was this supposed to prevent sales on the day before Mass in Havana?

In short, the desire for total control — masked behind alleged security measures (protection for whom?) — generated a rather macabre design of what is supposed to be a fraternal and ecumenical service.

The only show of genuinely happiness was in one woman I found, in a very picturesque scene I should add. As she walked away at the end of the proceedings, she was telling everyone: “I took crucifixes and a rosary. They were giving them away in all colors on the corner. Mine is purple, the color of Saint Lazarus.”

However, she moved away from a place from where angelic voices were emerging singing the most beautiful songs (by Esteban Salas?). She had already done her part. But there’s no reason to exaggerate – after all, who really understood what was going on there?


Isbel Diaz

Isbel Diaz Torres: Pinar del Rio and Havana are my cities. I was born in one on March 1, 1976, and I’ve always lived in the other. I am a biologist and poet, though at times I’ve also been a musician, translator, teacher, computer geek, designer, photographer and editor. I’m very non-conformist and a defender of differences – perhaps due to always having been an ever-repressed “model child.” Nothing enthralls me more than the unknown, nature and art; these serve as my sources of mystery and development. A surprising activism has been born in me over the recent period. Though I’m not very sure how to channel it, I feel that it’s a worthy and legitimate energy. Let’s hope I have the discernment to manage it.

4 thoughts on “An Anticlimactic Mass

  • P.S. Last night I attended a powerful performance which takes place within an instution of the Catholic Church. “Doubt,” by John Patric Shanley, concerns the psychological and spiritual war between the local (liberal, liberation-theology) parish Priest, and the rigid, inflexible, Sister who directs the parish’s school.
    While on the one hand it is about the suspicion, distrust and guilt engendered by Catholicism, on the other hand, it is about a type of spiritually deformed person who can exist, and even flourish, within any such institution, be it The Church–or The Party (such as Koba)! Although it was a spare, four-person, production by a local company–The Vermont Theatre Company–it was better than many productons I’ve seen both on Broadway and Off-Broadway, and much better than the film version. In short, it was everything good drama should be: intense, traumatic, one might say an almost “religious” experience! Has any theatre company ever done a production of this in Havana? OTOH, with the predonanance of The Church being such a distant memory, would such a production make much sense to most of the Cubans living now?

  • I suspect that lower % of Catholics in Cuba is due to the prevalence of the syncratic African religions, such as the Regla de Lucumi and the Regls de Palo, plus the growing influence of the Protestant evangelicals. Ironically, back home in West Africa the indiginous religions are on the wane due to the growing inroads of Islam!

  • Isbel,
    I responded to you in your “Democratizing Cuba” post on government by lottery .

  • Isbel,

    I was somewhat surprised to read recently at HT that only 10% of Cubans considered themselves Roman Catholics. I had always thought that the percentage would be well over 75% .

    That low percentage of believers in the general population and (I would hope) a revolutionary consciousness that detests the Church’s misogyny, lack of democracy, homophobia, past record of support of counter-revolutionary governments and opposition to socialist societies probably were the two main reasons that attendance was so low at the open air mass.

    You and I can only imagine the size of the crowd had the Pope and his Church been supporters of liberation theology and not just the tools of western imperialism that they have always been .

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