By Pilar Montes
HAVANA TIMES — Pope Francis’ mediation in the negotiations that eased the nearly six-decade-old tensions between Cuba and the United States and the feat of re-establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries stretched out the red carpet for a visit to the island from the Holy See.
In addition to issues that can bring Cuba and the United States closer together, Pope Francis will likely want to draw Cuban believers to the Church with his words, even though most of Cuba’s devout combine liturgy with Afro-Cuban rites.
His Holiness has won over some followers in the country beyond the devout because of how he has defended the poor since becoming Pope, his criticism of those who create wars, preaching for the care of children and the elderly and his call to protect the environment and nature.
Urging the clergy to come out of the Church to help those in need of aid and spiritual consolation, Francis preaches through example. During this year’s Holy Week, rather than take a group of male and female prisoners to the Vatican, he went to the penitentiary and, like Christ and the apostles, washed their feet and gave them the sacraments.
The visit of the first Latin American Pope will begin with an 18-kilometer tour, from the airport to his accommodations, a journey that is likely to bring out hundreds of thousands of people in Havana.
After meeting with President Raul Castro, Pope Francis will gather with his clergy and bishops at Havana’s cathedral. The mas he will offer at Revolution Square will be overlooked by an image of Che Guevara, to the left, and the Jose Marti monument, to the right.
I dare predict that there will be an even larger turnout for Francis’ visit than the one we saw at Revolution Square when Pope John Paul II offered a mass there. The Pope will then travel to Holguin and Santiago de Cuba, where he will hold a mass at the Cobre Sanctuary before leaving for the United States on September 22.
As Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Beniamino Stella declared at the end of April, the Pope’s visit should help speed up the thaw between Havana and Washington.
During an interview for Cuban television, Cardinal Jaime Ortega recalled that Pope Benedict XVI once said to him: “the Church isn’t here to change governments but to take the gospel to the hearts of the people who will change the world,” a school of thought that the current Pope has effectively put into practice.
In May this year, President Raul Castro expressed such satisfaction following his meeting with Pope Francis that he declared: “If things continue this way, I’ll start praying and going to church again.”
Beyond the Catholic Church’s permanent objective of increasing the number of Cuban church-goers and intervening on behalf of prisoners on the island, the Pope’s visit (the third in 17 years) is front-page news throughout the world.
Ups and Downs
June 7, 2015 marked 80 years of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the Vatican, but the story takes us further back in time.
According to a report issued by Pope Leon XIII, the Vatican appointed Placido Luis Chapelle Archbishop of New Orleans and “extraordinary Apostolic Delegate, who, becoming thoroughly informed of the state of affairs and the most pressing needs there, is to offer a faithful account of everything.”
“All things considered and taking into account Cuba’s proximity to and affinity with the other regions of Latin America, the present decree is issued on the fourth of September of nineteen hundred and one.” (http://www.diocesispinardelrio.info/dioces/data/docum/2.html)
Eleven years later, in 1915, a group of Independence War veterans headed by General Jesus Rabi signed a document asking Pope Benedict XV to name the Virgin of Caridad del Cobre Cuba’s patron saint, a petition granted by His Holiness.
On June 7, 1935, under Decree Law No. 208, then provisional President Carlos Mendieta decided to create a Cuban delegation to the Holy See.
A document naming Monsignor Giorgio Giuseppe Caruana Apostolic Nuncio of Havana was signed by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli on September 11, 1935. Four years later, Pacelli would become Pope Pious XII, notorious for having blessed the fascist troops (and not the Allies) during the Second World War.
In the more recent struggle for liberation, many of the rebels led by Fidel Castro also felt accompanied in their longing for justice and freedom by the syncretic deity known as Ochun among followers of Afro-Cuban religions.
As for the Catholic Church, after the triumph of the revolution in 1959, the high echelons of the clergy and some parish priests opposed the measures advanced by the new government, helping conceal criminals fleeing from justice and attacking the ogre of “communism,” not knowing what that ideology proposed.
Later, thousands of children were sent to the United States by their parents through arrangements made by the clergy in what was dubbed Operation Peter Pan. These children were taken in by US families, causing traumas that many people endure to this day.
The example that always comes to mind is that of Nuncio Cesare Zacchi, who had the merit of correctly interpreting the codes of Cuba’s political process, helped maintain relations with the Church and maintained a personal friendship with Fidel Castro.
Another important figure in terms of bilateral relations between the Church and Cuban government was journalist and writer Luis Amado Blanco, ambassador to the Holy See for over a decade.
Despite moments of disagreement on some issues, these relations are full of positive elements and periods of collaboration.