A More Religious Cuba Welcomes a Revolutionary Pope

By Isaac Risco (dpa)

Waiting for the pope. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — Olga Castañeda has been rehearsing religious hymns every morning at Havana’s Revolution Square, a stone’s throw away from the well-known relief sculpture of Che Guevara.

On Sunday, the retired university professor and practicing Catholic will be able to see another Pope up close, at an esplanade that has been a symbol of Cuban communism for decades. Francis, the Pope who is currently breaking the Vatican’s most conservative molds, will offer a mass that day at the square.

Castañeda is part of a 140-person choir that is to sing during the most important mass to be offered by the Latin American Pope during his four-day visit to the island. “I believe Cuba has been fortunate,” says Castañeda, who had to be discrete about her faith during the first decades of the revolution, when Catholicism was not well regarded by the government.

However, the island has changed much since. Three Popes have visited Cuba since 1998, when Castañeda joined the choir assembled for Pope John Paul II’s visit. She was not in Havana when Pope Benedict XVI came to Cuba, but, this year, she will once again have the privilege before Argentinean Jorge Bergoglio.

The Jesuit Pope will arrive to the island on Saturday Sept. 19, as one of the architects of the historical rapprochement between Cuba and the United States.

Bergoglio has also revolutionized the Church since becoming Pope, with declarations of tolerance towards homosexuality (“Who am I to judge them?”) and understanding towards divorce and by identifying with the poor. This is the reason that left-wing governments such as Cuba’s regard him with sympathy.

Today, Cuba is a country quite different from the one that welcomed John Paul II in January of 1998. Karol Wojtyla’s visit impelled the government’s reconciliation with the Catholic Church, after several decades of conflict. The statement made by the Polish Pope, “let Cuba open up to the world, let the world open up to Cuba,” circled the globe at the time.

The island has indeed become more open. Since 2008, Raul Castro has been implementing several economic reforms. Re-establishing diplomatic relations with the United States is the most important development of Cuba’s foreign policy in half a century.

Blessing the store. Photo: Juan Suarez

The Church also secured a space for exchange with the government years ago. As a social actor, it is the only recognized institution that can tackle issues advanced by the outlawed political opposition. In 2010, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Cuba’s highest ecclesiastical authority, mediated in the release of dozens of political prisoners.

Relations between Church and State had broken down following the triumph of the revolution in 1959. Many priests had to leave the country after religious schools were nationalized, and the Cuban Church supported groups who were trying to overthrow Fidel Castro during his first, tumultuous years in power.

“Both sides made mistakes,” Lenier Gonzalez, former editor of the Catholic publication Espacio Laical, comments today. During Pope Benedict XVI’s visit, Raul Castro acknowledged these mistakes and stated the blame could be distributed evenly across the two sides. The Cuban government has defended freedom of religion since.

Faith on the island has gradually begun to flourish since. Some days ago, church-goers in the densely-populated neighborhood of Centro Habana celebrated the Day of the Caridad del Cobre Virgin, Cuba’s patron saint. In the Christian procession, one could see the signs of syncretism with Cuban Santeria, a religious tradition from Africa that widespread on the island.

The State is now planning to return some 80 Catholic churches that were seized after 1959, Orlando Marquez, editor in chief of Palabra Nueva (a publication by the Havana Archdiocese) tells DPA. Several have already been returned to the Church. For the first time since the triumph of the revolution, three new temples are also being built around the country.

Pope Francis’ visit has also given rise to expectations that his words will not only encourage exchange with the United States but also impel a process of changes and reforms on the island.

“Pope Francis’ visit could perhaps have a more direct impact on those changes,” says Roberto Vega, who edited Espacio Laical along with Lenier Gonzalez.

The Catholic analyst believes that Francis, a different kind of Pope who is more interested in social issues, can reach Raul Castro’s government more effectively. It is an “entirely new kind of discourse” that “Cuba could take on without thereby renouncing to its principles,” he believes.

“Every time a Pope comes to visit, there’s more understanding between everyone,” Castañeda says while waiting for Francis’ arrival, rehearsing with her choir at Revolution Square. “I believe it always leaves us with something positive,” she says.