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Advent Sign of Hope and Peace: Cuba and the USA

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Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB.

In light of yesterday’s welcome announcement of a normalizing of relations between Cuba and the United States of America, and in gratitude for the heroic, diplomatic efforts of Pope Francis, who built on the foundations laid by his predecessors Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II in bringing this about, I offer below what I wrote back in 1998 when Pope John Paul II visited Cuba. It was one of my first experiences commentating a papal visit for national television in Canada, long before Salt and Light Television was born! These thoughts appeared in the Newman Centre Sunday bulletin on Sunday January 25, 1998.

The Old Man and the See…

Journalist: “Your Holiness, in this historic visit [to Cuba], what would you like to hear from Fidel Castro?

Pope John Paul II: “Above all I want to hear the truth always and everywhere, that he [Castro] always tell me the truth, the truth that is proper to him, as a man, as president, as commander, one says, of the revolution. Also the truth about his country, the relations between Church and State, everything which is important for us. The Cuban President knows well who the Pope is, and if he invited him and did it after his visit to the Vatican [in 1996], it means that he thought first about who he was inviting, what he could say. Moreover, one cannot forget in this context that there is Providence, the Providence which leads the fate of the world, of mankind, of peoples, of individuals. Therefore, I think that the two of us must place ourselves in the hands of Providence. Certainly, the world is not only supported and led by us, it is guided by Divine Providence, and the history of the world is not only the history of peoples and states, it is the history of salvation.”

–From the Press Conference aboard the Alitalia jet carrying Pope John Paul II to Cuba this past Wednesday

There are electric‚ moments in life when all seems to stop and we fix our gaze on some event, some happening, some image, some person, not in tragedy or despair, but in a strange sense of admiration and awe. Such moments are few and far between, their duration ever so short. But when they happen, they leave a deep, lasting impression on us. I experienced one such moment this past Wednesday at about 3:45 P.M., sitting in the anchor booth of the main newsroom at CTV. I had been asked the day before to be the commentator for this national network’s live coverage of the arrival ceremony of Pope John Paul II in Havana, Cuba. The event was fraught with several ironies. I am American-born, therefore part of that looming, capitalistic, enemy country of this small Communist island 90 miles off the Florida coast. Castro’s revolution in Cuba began the same year I was born 1959, so I literally grew up knowing that Fidel Castro was a national enemy one of those evil names not to be mentioned aloud. I am a Catholic priest and my Polish-born leader, clearly in the twilight of his 20-year reign, and undoubtedly a towering giant of this century, was going to be welcomed by another, similar figure larger than life. A 100-year-old ideology that proposed a collective paradise of social justice and economic equality on earth would confront a 2,000-year-old belief in Jesus Christ as the Lord and Redeemer of history, a belief in the eternal power of devotion to the divine and reverence for human dignity.

Not to mention the simultaneous breaking story of the American President and the latest Washington scandal. The message John Paul II was bringing to Cuba about faith, morals, family life, human dignity, freedom, truth and justice, was so badly needed in the corridors of power and in the homes of the enemy nation some 90 miles away!  In the minutes just preceding the flight’s touchdown on Cuban soil, I watched the studio personnel around me scramble between computers and television monitors, almost as if they were trying to decide which story was more important- Castro’s and Karol’s or Clinton’s.  My own fervent request  – which was heeded by CTV – unlike all the other North American networks whose monitors were mounted on the wall above us, was not to do a split screen of the arrival ceremony with President Clinton and his cronies on one side and Castro and Karol on the other!  It seemed to me that the Cuban story was a bit more earth-shattering‚ and deserved a little more attention and respect than the latest White House scandal.

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As was pointed out on all the major television networks this week, Cuba set the stage for the meeting of two absolute rulers! Both are traditionalists and conservatives within their faiths. Each is charismatic and charming, larger than life, with power rooted his persona. Each plays a dominant role on the world stage, imposing his belief system on millions of followers. Both are skilled politicians, dressed in the uniforms of their vocations! I shared the joy of my own Church at this historic visit. On the one hand, I harbored some bitter feelings about America’s 35-year-old embargo against this small island nation that is the last hold-out for the Communist ideology that has failed. On the other hand, I was proud of Canada’s consistent policy of openness and assistance to Cuba during America’s 35-year old cold war with Cuba.

The message John Paul II was bringing to Cuba about faith, morals, family life, human dignity, freedom, truth and justice, was so badly needed in the corridors of power and in the homes of the enemy nation some 90 miles away!
…And then the moment arrived. The plane door opened and the frail Pontiff appeared to the thunderous applause of the crowd at the airport. Fidel Castro stood at the bottom of the stairs, like a little kid waiting for his grandfather to come into the house. Castro did something remarkable– he waved at the Pope! The electric moment was happening not only on the tarmac, but all around me in the studio.

…For a good 7-8 minutes, there was not a sound in the studio, except for the voices coming from the Cuban television hookup. I could not help but remember a similar airport welcoming scene several years ago when another great world leader and giant of this century [and a personal hero of mine], welcomed the poet and playwright-now-become-Bishop of Rome to the Czech Republic. In a 1974 poem, which Václav Havel quoted as he welcomed Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla wrote:

“History lays down events over the struggles of conscience. Victories throb inside this layer, and defeats. History does not cover them: it makes them stand out. Can history ever flow against the current of conscience?”

This past Wednesday, January 21, 1998, Fidel Castro welcomed a man of conscience to Cuba. I am sure that Castro didn’t fully know what he was getting into in welcoming the Pope to his country. Nor do I think that John Paul II is totally aware of the implications of his visit to the island nation, and its impact on the world. Only time will tell. Both men were acting under the impulse of Providence. What I do know is that in one electric moment, history and conscience met on the tarmac in Havana. I am certain that a new era began for the people of Cuba, but also for the people of the world. In a very particular way we look with the eyes of faith to our own century, searching out whatever bears witness not only to human history but also to God’s intervention in human affairs. John Paul II’s visit to Cuba is one of the great promissory events of the end of this century and millennium, and clearly one more great sign of God’s grace at work among us, ushering in the Great Jubilee of the year 2000.

Centuries ago when Jesus returned home to his Nazareth synagogue, there was a similar electric moment. He took the Isaiah scroll and began to read from chapter 61. The eyes of the assembly were fixed upon him. Jesus took up the Jubilee theme in the first moments of his ministry. Jesus read: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” At the end of his reading, Jesus boldly announces: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” [Luke 4:16-30] thus indicating that he himself was the Messiah and that the long-expected “time” was beginning in him.

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The words and deeds of Jesus represent the whole tradition of Jubilee in the Old Testament. The text from Isaiah was taken from a collection of poems about the last days which foretold the redemption of Jerusalem and symbolized the renewal of the people of Israel. When these words are placed on Jesus’ lips, they identify him as the messianic prophet of the final times, and they state his mission: to proclaim the Good News, liberate men and women, and tell them of God’s grace. In asserting that these words are fulfilled “today,” Jesus is saying in effect that the inauguration of his public ministry marks the beginning of the final times and the entry of divine salvation into human history.

Through Jesus’ own appropriation of Isaiah’s words to his own ministry, he was reminding us that that history did not cover up the triumphs and disasters, the fidelities and infidelities of Israel throughout the ages. Rather, history made them stand out. And now the time had come for Jesus to take history into his own hands, to confront it with his own person, to make a difference, and to remind his hearers that God had not abandoned their cries, their hopes, their sufferings, their dreams. Rather, God would fulfill them in his own Son who stood before them now in the Nazareth synagogue. Once more, history would not flow against the current of conscience. In Jesus, history and conscience meet, ‘steadfast love and faithfulness embrace; righteousness and peace kiss each other’ [Ps. 85:10]. It was an electric moment in Nazareth. It was an electric moment in Havana. May you be shocked by God’s power this week wherever you are. But once you are over the shock, do something with the new current pulsating within you.

Good Friday the key to Cuban freedom?

The fruits of a papal visit are often not noticeable until after the banners and altars have come down.  In Cuba it didn’t take long to see the gifts of the papal visit.

Catholic News Service reported this week on the impact the Pope’s overnight stay in El Cobre. The preparations alone meant that infrastructure such as roads and buildings were repaired and improved to welcome the illustrious guest, much to the delight of residents who has been waiting a long time for such repairs.

The pope’s visit to El Cobre also brought Cubans – both Catholics and non Catholics- together under the banner of the Virgin of Charity or “La Caridad” as she is known. Although Santeria and other Christian denominations have a presence in El Cobre, the one thing that unites them all is a devotion to La Caridad. Pope Benedict repeatedly called Cubans to put aside their differences of belief, race, skin colour, and origin to work for the good of all Cubans and the chance at a better future.

The Holy Father repeated that call to the Cuban government during his Mass in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución on March 28 saying, “I wish to encourage the country’s Government authorities to strengthen what has already been achieved and advance along the path of genuine service to the true good of Cuban as a whole.”

The plaza holds an estimated 600,000 people and it was about two-thirds full when Mass started. Many of those were Catholics, participating in the first papal mass on Cuban soil in 14 years. However, many were not Catholic. One woman explained that the government had encouraged all Cubans to attend the mass, spreading the word through state-controlled media. One woman saying the move sent mixed messages given that the communist island nation was officially atheist until not long ago.

Whatever the intention, the fact remains that the previously atheist nation gave it’s citizens two days off and strong encouragement to attend the papal mass, showing an unprecedented openness to the Church.

During the same homily in Havana, Pope Benedict  reiterated the need for religious freedom, making it clear the church is not a threat. All the church wants to share is “Christ, our hope and glory” but in order to do so the church must “count on basic religious freedom, which consists in her being able to proclaim and celebrate her faith also in public,” he said.

Meeting with Cuban president Raúl Castro on March 27, Pope Benedict  made a concrete request that would move the country further in that direction. He asked Raúl Castro to make Good Friday a public holiday.  When JPII visited Cuba in 1998 he asked Fidel Castro to make Christmas a public holiday. The elder Castro obliged and that year, for the first time in about 30 years Cubans had a day off on December 25. If the younger Castro grants the Pope’s request this would be another important move towards freedom of religion for Cubans.

Before leaving Cuba, Pope Benedict had one last meeting with the Island’s most famous resident: Fidel Castro. The former president is now 85 years old, and far from the robust military leader the world saw greeting John Paul II in 1998.

In his 30 minutes with the pope, Fidel told the pope he followed the entire visit on television and asked him about the changes to the liturgy after the Second Vatican Council. The Castro brothers were raised Catholic and attended Jesuit runs schools in  Havana. The last time Fidel and Raúl would have attended Mass, the liturgy looked very different.

The officially atheist Fidel Castro also thanked Pope Benedict for the beatifications of Mother Teresa and John Paul II, and then the two leaders discussed the problems of mankind from a “religious, scientific, and cultural” point of view. He then asked the Holy Father to send him a book to help him reflect.

As Pope Benedict said in his homilies throughout the trip, in order to change those things around us that are unjust, we first need to change our hearts. If Cuba is to change, open to greater religious freedom, it follows that the first change needs to be the hearts and minds of it’s leaders. Although Fidel Castro may have given the reigns of power to his younger brother, he is still a presence in Cuban government. What impact, then, will Fidel’s apparent openness to the deeper issues of mankind have on the Cuban nation? Perhaps this 30-minute meeting will bear the most fruit of all Pope Benedict’s voyage.


Photo credit: CNS photo

Perspectives Daily – Mar. 28, 2012

Tonight on Perspectives we bring you the stories from another busy day in Cuba, where Pope Benedict has just recently concluded his Apostolic Journey.