Francis in Cuba: The whole world is watching

Printed from: http://newbostonpost.com/2015/09/17/francis-in-cuba-the-whole-world-is-watching/

The eyes of the world will be on Pope Francis as he arrives in Cuba on Saturday to begin the first leg of his apostolic journey to North America.

That the pontiff plans to visit the hemisphere’s only one-party communist country just before he arrives in the U.S. is no coincidence – the trip was deliberately planned to highlight Francis’s role in encouraging the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two nations after 50 years of hostility.

Pope Francis arrives for the weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Pope Francis arrives for the weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

In recent months, President Barack Obama has reopened the U.S. embassy in Havana, taken steps to loosen the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba,  and called for a resumption of commercial flights to the island by year’s end.

Unfortunately, but predictably, renewed diplomatic relations have led not to increased openness in this repressive police-state, but to increased crackdowns on those who oppose Cuba’s communist government.

Just last week, Cuban police detained approximately 50 protesters following the regular Sunday march in Havana by the Ladies in White, a group of female activists whose relatives have been imprisoned by the government for expressing dissenting political viewpoints. Members of the Ladies in White, who in 2005 were awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Conscience, have been arrested and beaten on numerous occassions. Earlier this summer, former political prisoner Angel Moya told Yahoo News that since the U.S. announced the resumption of diplomatic ties, “the Cuban government has grown even bolder.”

(In a gesture of “good will,” the Communist regime of Raul Castro plans to pardon more than 3,000 prisoners ahead of the Pope’s arrival, but not political prisoners – just criminals.)

Pope Francis is, of course, not the first Pope to journey to Cuba – both John Paul II and Benedict XVI paid visits during their papacies as well.

In this Jan. 25, 1998 file photo, Pope John Paul II arrives to Plaza of the Revolution to celebrate Mass in Havana, Cuba, to celebrate Mass, where a  sculpture of Cuban revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara covers the Interior Ministry building. (AP Photo/Joe Cavaretta, File)

In this Jan. 25, 1998 file photo, Pope John Paul II arrives at Plaza of the Revolution to celebrate Mass in Havana, Cuba, where a sculpture of Cuban revolutionary hero Ernesto “Che” Guevara stands before the Interior Ministry building. (AP Photo/Joe Cavaretta, File)

John Paul II, who was outspoken in his opposition to Communism, used his 1998 visit to Cuba to call for the release of political prisoners and to inspire a spiritual revolution. He reminded the people that Catholicism had made Cubans out of the island’s disparate native, Spanish, and African populations, and that it was faith that inspired them to rise up against oppressive colonialism.

John Paul understood well, as his biographer George Weigel has explained, that Communism is “based on a false understanding of the human person, human community, human origins, and human destiny.”  And he sought to remind oppressed peoples of the truth about themselves in order to “forge tools of liberation that Communism could not match.”

In Cuba, John Paul aimed (as he had in his native Poland earlier in his papacy) to awaken a love of God and a hunger for freedom among peoples who had long been subjugated by a totalitarian state bent on eradicating their spiritual identity.

At a Mass on the Plaza Antonio Maceo in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, John Paul recalled the animating faith of Antonio Maceo, the great leader of the Cuban Revolutionary Forces during Cuba’s wars of independence. Maceo was known as El Titan de Bronce (the Bronze Titan), in recognition of both the color of his skin and his stature. John Paul vividly identified Catholicism with the very identity of the Cuban people by reminding his listeners, in a square named in honor of Maceo, that the warrior always wore the medal of Cuba’s patron saint, La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre (Our Lady of Charity), into battle.

Cuban dissidents were buoyed by JP2’s appeals to the nation’s religious heritage. But Pope Benedict’s 2012 visit is widely regarded as having been less successful. Benedict was prevented from meeting with dissidents and was maneuvered into being photographed with the aged Fidel Castro and terminally ill Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.  Both dictators were raised as Catholics, and both by then were no doubt contemplating pontifical benediction and absolution for their sins.  Perhaps seeking to protect the Cuban clergy, which had only recently been permitted to exist in the open, Benedict disappointed the faithful opposition by making no visible gesture in their direction.

Pope Francis, on the other hand, seemed to go out of his way some months ago to signal support for dissidents.  During a general audience in St. Peter’s Square, Francis greeted and was photographed speaking with Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White. The photograph electrified Cuban Catholics around the world.

Back in Havana, Soler told the Catholic News Agency in August that she and other human-rights activists will try to attend Pope Francis’s Masses, even though she suspects that they will be arrested.  Soler has written to the Pope imploring him, “When you come to Cuba could you listen to us even for a few minutes?”

Let’s hope Francis heeds the call.

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