Re­new­ing the faith in Cuba

Gov­ern­ment helps bring out crowds for pope’s three-day visit

The Washington Times Daily - - World - BY NI­COLE WIN­FIELD AND

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.

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