Renewing the faith in Cuba
Government helps bring out crowds for pope’s three-day visit
SANTIAGO, CUBA | Pope Benedict XVI followed in the footsteps of his predecessor’s groundbreaking trip to Cuba on Monday, hoping to renew the faith in Latin America’s least Catholic country.
Cuban President Raul Castro came to the airport in the eastern city of Santiago to welcome Benedict, just days after the pope declared the island’s communist system outdated. Unlike in Mexico, where multitudes showed up to greet the pope at the airport, normal citizens were kept away from Cuba’s tightly controlled arrival ceremony.
The pontiff was scheduled to rally tens of thousands of believers at an outdoor evening Mass on Monday in the colonial city’s main square on a blue-and-white platform crowned by graceful arches in the shape of a papal miter. Then he was to spend the night beside the shrine of Cuba’s patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre.
Benedict’s three-day stay in Cuba inevitably will spark comparisons to John Paul II’S historic 1998 tour, when Fidel Castro traded his army fatigues for a suit and tie to greet the pope at Havana’s airport and John Paul uttered the now-famous words: “May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba.”
Those comparisons were also evident in Mexico, which had claimed John Paul as its own during his five visits in a nearly 27-year pontificate. With his first trip to Mexico, Benedict appeared to lay to rest the impression that he is a distant, cold pontiff who can never compete with the charisma and personal connection forged by his predecessor.
About 350,000 people attended his Sunday Mass in Leon, Mexico.
The welcome is likely to be less fervent in Cuba, where only about 10 percent of the people are practicing Catholics. Still, the government is helping bring out crowds with special transportation and a paid day off to attend the Mass in Santiago and another on Wednesday in Havana.
The political overtones of the visit, however, are more pronounced than they were in Mexico, even if the pope is unlikely to create a diplomatic flap by aggressively challenging his hosts on Cuban soil.
Benedict has been sharply critical of socialism in the past. When he began his journey to the Americas last week, he told reporters it is “evident that Marxist ideology as it was conceived no longer responds to reality.” He exhorted Cubans to “find new models, with patience, and in a constructive way.”
Cuba’s single-party, communist government never outlawed religion, but it expelled priests and closed religious schools after Fidel Castro’s takeover of Cuba in 1959.
Tensions eased in the early 1990s when the government removed references to atheism in the constitution and let believers of all faiths join the Communist Party. John Paul’s 1998 visit further warmed relations. However, the church has virtually no access to state-run radio or television, is not allowed to administer schools and has not been granted permission to build new churches. The island of 11.2 million people has just 361 priests. Before 1959 there were 700 priests for a population of 6 million.
The Catholic Church, however, is now the most influential independent institution in the country, thanks in no small part to Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana. He has negotiated with Raul Castro for the release of political prisoners, given the government advice on economic policy and allowed church magazines to publish increasingly frank articles about the need for change.
In the weeks leading up to Benedict’s arrival, the government cracked down on dissidents with warnings and brief detentions.
Pope Benedict XVI speaks with children as Cuba’s President Raul Castro (right) looks on during Benedict’s arrival to the airport in Santiago on Monday. The pontiff’s visit comes just days after he said the island nation’s communist system is outdated.