The Vatican and Cuba: A History of Ups and Downs

By Pilar Montes

Raul Castro and Pope Francis during the Cuban president's visit to the Vatican in May, 2015.
Raul Castro and Pope Francis during the Cuban president’s visit to the Vatican in May, 2015.  Photo: escambray.cu

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.


18 thoughts on “The Vatican and Cuba: A History of Ups and Downs

  • September 22, 2015 at 3:22 pm
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    The title of the article says it all. Cuba in the form of the Castro family regime has the ups and the Vatican has the downs.
    Raul Castro Ruz is using his power and control over the people of Cuba and the Vatican in the form of the Pope, is muttering allusions but being seen to accept a totalitarian communist regime by giving personal audience to an ex-communicated ex-dictator and by laughing happily in the company of the current dictator. Justice has to be SEEN to be done!

  • September 15, 2015 at 12:30 pm
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    When I wrote that our history is what we are, maybe in consideration of Fidel, I ought to have written that our actual history is what we are.
    As Fidel is a Jesuit, then he may try to seek redemption for his sins. That will take a long visit with the Pope!

  • September 15, 2015 at 8:31 am
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    It’s from Orwell, in “1984”, but the correct quote is,

    “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.”

    Fidel put that maxim to work, controlling the Cuban education system & organs of propaganda to re-write the history of the Cuban Revolution.

  • September 15, 2015 at 8:27 am
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    The church hierarchy supported Batista (as did the Cuban Communist Party), but rank and file priests & nuns supported the rebels and others who opposed Batista.

  • September 14, 2015 at 3:10 pm
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    Don’t get confused TIM between Bible class and the Havana Times!
    The Havana Times is about Cuba and some of the contributors who respond to articles are definitely not good candidates for conversion.
    Don’t thank me!

  • September 13, 2015 at 11:42 pm
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    It’s called faith. Luck has nothing to do with it.

  • September 13, 2015 at 5:18 pm
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    You’re barking up the wrong tree.
    Once the revolution took power, the Church was not given any opportunity for its usual anti-communist shenanigans by the savvy Fidel .
    He deported the Fascist Spanish priests and made damned sure that the Church would not be the problem it usually is to any anti-capitalist country before allowing it the complete freedom it has today.
    The RCC is a totalitarian organization whose penalty, like most fundamentalist Christian churches, for non-belief is eternal Hell .
    Gods and the religions that espouse them are not democratic . They are the ultimate totalitarian form which is why you must fear, worship and obey instead of reasoning .
    You have to be unable to question authority as you , Moses, are unable to do , in order to desire to have an
    unquestionable authority eternally over you .
    So , perhaps the worst teaching of any religion is to blindly obey an authority that makes no sense; to not be able to have a relationship of equals but always a subservient one.
    It’s a wish to be a slave.
    For eternity.
    Good luck with that particular insane totalitarian belief of yours Moses.

  • September 12, 2015 at 9:31 pm
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    You are obviously n9 fan of the RCC. By your hollow comment, I assume that you don’t have any proof either of transgressions by the Church against the Castro dictatorship.

  • September 12, 2015 at 8:11 pm
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    I’m not a big fan of religion and agree with many as to their bitterness. If you really want to watch a classic, check out George Carlin’s False Promises Religion concert short. I watch it often. Regarding the Pope, I like the guy and I think he’s pissing off a few in the Vatican hierarchy which is just fine with me.

  • September 12, 2015 at 2:24 pm
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    He who controls the past, controls the future.
    Orwell ( I think)

  • September 12, 2015 at 2:21 pm
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    Both before and during the Cuban Revolution, the Roman Catholic Church supported the Batista regime and staffed Cuban Churches with fascist-minded priests from Franco’s fascist Spain .
    It was/is the nature of the Catholic Church to support the people in power the powerful, in any particular country where they had/have financial interests, churches.
    They supported Hitler and sent Papal greetings on his every birthday.
    I would imagine a good number of Cuban Catholic boys who went to parochial schools were raped by the many pederast priests always in good supply within the Church. ( word gets around after centuries of child-rape: “what better place to victimize kids and never get punished ?”
    Yeah, the RC Church is all about doing good in the world.
    and that would be whatever is good for the Church.
    Remember: “Good people will always do good things and bad people will always do bad things but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion. “

  • September 12, 2015 at 2:10 pm
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    DNA tracing has taught us that homo sapiens ( that’s us humans) have been on the planet for over 100,000 years.
    Since that time the people of the planet have had over 1000 gods in which they believed and which, in their turn , they discarded as not real.
    We are now down to the present one which, as Christopher Hitchens noted, brings us ever closer to the actual number .
    What kind of God -the one I presume you believe in – one tht both hears our prayers, knows when we are sleeping, knows when were awake and who knows if we’ve been good or bad ( would make a nice song) would sit by and watch the human race almost die out 60,000 years ago and not show up until about 5000 years ago to the Jews ?
    1) Go to You Tube.
    2) Request: Christianity is false and immoral : Hitchens
    3) Learn why Christianity IS both false and immoral in just 13 minutes . (12:59)
    if you can sit through the entire segment .
    To the subject at hand:
    Interesting: in the not-too–distant past the Church was pro-fascist ( Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Salazar etc and very anti-communist .
    Now, Francis, perhaps atoning for his lack of moral action in the “dirty wars “( read anti-communist) wars in his native Argentina and elsewhere, is chumming up to truly Christian causes like poverty alleviation and rightfully attacking free-enterprise capitalism as part of this.
    His visit to the only Latin American country without childhood malnutrition because of Cuba’s Christ-like care for the “least of us” is what should be a meeting of minds concerned primarily for the poor as dictated by socialist principles and as Christ taught as being most paramount for everyone.
    We shall see just how Christ-like the church becomes or remains after Francis leaves the post .
    We shall also see just how truly socialist the Cuban leadership goes after normalization or how far they will retreat into state capitalism to maintain their control as has been both history and anarchist belief .

  • September 12, 2015 at 10:08 am
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    “good things are being done with he grace of God”
    Syria, Lybia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, North Korea, Russia, Cuba
    Are these examples of the work of God?
    What is God doing about the refugees fleeing from Asad’s Syria?

  • September 12, 2015 at 2:30 am
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    We had to go through there to get to here , here is the present , every day is a present. The future
    is for all living things and man is a tool of God. What has worked can still work , and what has not worked has educated us .
    Pope Francis ,congratulations on a job well done and continued success in the quest to purify the worlds seas , air and land which of course can only be done by purifieing the souls of mankind.
    The human struggle includes errors from time to time and recognition along with forgiveness is Gods way for man. Isolation has not defeated God in remote areas of the planet for even these groups of people along with all living things are sacred and therefore know God in there own way and so it was for Cuba.
    Today globally good things are being done with the grace of God and with thanks and praise of God
    by mankind the world will find balance truth and above all happiness and peace built on a foundation of LOVE,Gods greatest gift.
    Thank You

  • September 11, 2015 at 10:14 pm
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    I have never heard of a single “despicable deed” committed by the Catholic Church against the Castro dictatorship. Please cite your source. Going forward is indeed important. But never forgetting the past and what the Castros are capable of is also important to the future.

  • September 11, 2015 at 9:15 pm
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    Our history is what we are.

  • September 11, 2015 at 1:50 pm
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    Moses, all true. Similarly is the list of despicable deeds committed by the Catholic church over time. Both are history.

    But the important thing is where we are now and what direction we are going in the future.

  • September 11, 2015 at 8:16 am
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    Pillar fails to mention in her post the fact that Fidel closed and confiscated church properties. Fidel arrested and expelled Catholic priests. The wearing of crucifixes or other Christian objects was prohibited. The list of Castro attacks on the Catholic Church is long and disheartening. Castro sycophants hope to rewrite history but despite the papal visits and Raul’s recent change of heart, the past remains unchanged.

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