By Patricia Grogg
HAVANA TIMES, Nov. 11 (IPS) — A visit by the Pope to Cuba would strengthen the climate of dialogue between the government and the Catholic Church, analysts agreed after the announcement that Benedict XVI is considering visiting this country in the spring of 2012.
“This is great reason for joy and hope,” the assistant secretary of the Cuban bishops’ conference (COCC), Jose Felix Perez Riera, told IPS after Thursday’s announcement. He added that a visit by the Pope would strengthen “the sentiment of unity and reconciliation among Cubans.”
For his part, professor of religion Enrique Lopez Oliva said such a visit would be very important, because “it can open a new stage in relations between the State and the Church,” after the unprecedented talks held last year between President Raul Castro and Cardinal Jaime Ortega.
The Cuban bishops welcomed the announcement, made in Rome by a Vatican spokesman and confirmed in Havana by the Church hierarchy, as “a gift from Our Lady of Charity, the Mother of all Cubans.” Since August 2010, a statue of the Virgin – La Virgen de La Caridad del Cobre – has been on a tour of the island that ends Dec. 30.
The procession is part of the celebrations with which Cuban Catholics are commemorating the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the statue of the “mother and patron saint” of Cuba, which culminate in 2012 with a Jubilee Year organized in every diocese. Many pilgrims, both Cubans and foreigners, are expected to visit the El Cobre sanctuary.
The original statue is on view in the basilica that houses the shrine, 12 km from Santiago de Cuba (861 km east of Havana). The small statue was found in 1612 by two Indian brothers, Juan and Rodrigo de Hoyos, and a young black boy, Juan Moreno. According to the legend, the statue was floating on a plank in the Bay of Nipe off the island’s northeast coast. On the board was the inscription “I am the Virgin of Charity.”
“We are very happy, especially because of the Jubilee Year. It will be a lovely opportunity for the Holy Father to come as a pilgrim,” Perez Riera said. The priest said the Virgin’s tour had helped build faith and generate a good climate for a papal visit.
Benedict succeeded John Paul II (1978-2005), who visited Cuba in January 1998. He met with then President Fidel Castro and was able to build valuable bridges of dialogue between the State and the Catholic Church, relations that have not always been easy.
Fidel Castro issued at least two invitations to Benedict before he fell sick in 2006 and stepped down from all official posts. The path to eased tensions was taken up again by his younger brother Raul Castro, who was elected president of the Council of State in February 2008 by parliament.
Raul Castro and Cardinal Ortega, accompanied by COCC president Dionisio García, held a long meeting in May 2010 to address “issues of common interest” and the “favorable development of relations between the Catholic Church and the Cuban State.”
That dialogue resulted in the release of more than 100 political prisoners, including the last 52 of the group of 75 dissidents who were given harsh sentences in 2003 on charges of conspiring with Washington for subversive purposes. (The rest had already been released on parole for humanitarian and health reasons.)
Most of the newly-released prisoners agreed to leave the country.
In his central report to the Sixth Congress of the governing Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), Raul Castro praised the Church leadership for its role in the prisoner release operation. He also emphasized the “mutual respect, loyalty and transparency” in which the talks with religious leaders were held.
“With this action, we have favored the consolidation of the most precious legacy of our history and of the revolutionary process: the unity of the nation,” Castro said. According to analysts, in expressing his appraisal in his report to the PCC, the president endorsed that position as the policy to be followed in future relations with the Catholic Church.
In comments to IPS, Lopez Oliva said that in that respect, the Pope’s visit would back those efforts by the cardinal, “strengthening his position within the Catholic Church and as an interlocutor with the authorities.” When he turned 75, Ortega offered his resignation as archbishop of Havana as stipulated by canon law, but the Vatican turned it down.
The cardinal has been the target of criticism from opposition groups inside and outside of Cuba, who accuse him of being “too conciliatory” toward the Castro government, Lopez Oliva noted. “But Benedict XVI’s trip would indicate that (the cardinal) has his support,” the expert said.
In that sense, López Oliva expects “a new attitude” among Cuban Catholics living abroad, many of whom are expected to travel to Cuba next year to be part of the procession to the El Cobre basilica.
“That could create a new framework for relations with Cuban émigrés, especially those who live in the United States,” he commented.
In Cardinal Ortega’s view, the Pope has indicated that he puts a priority on Cuba by choosing it, along with Mexico, for his second trip to Latin America, after his visit to Brazil in 2007.