Pope Benedict XVI’s visit
to Cuba could be the final push that topples the country’s communist regime.
That was reportedly the sentiment among many of the jubilant 200,000 Cubans who attended a papal Mass in Santiago de Cuba on March 26.
|Pope Benedict XVI and Raúl Castro wave to the crowd.
A large number of the island’s citizens are “more hopeful about Joseph Ratzinger’s [Pope Benedict’s] visit than they were about John Paul II’s in 1998,”wrote Giacomo Galeazzi, correspondent for the Italian website, Vatican Insider. And the reason, Galeazzi reported from Cuba, is the “increased weakness” of the Castro dictatorship. “Fourteen years ago Fidel was strong,” he wrote. “Today Raúl is not.”
The Pope, who has stressed he is visiting Cuba as a “pilgrim of charity,” is keen to avoid directly entering into politics on this trip and instead wants to focus on confirming Cuban Catholics in their faith and bolstering the country’s Catholic Church. But he has nevertheless made clear his views about the current regime in more forthright ways than his predecessor.
The Pope spoke for about a half an hour in the Vatican embassy with Fidel Castro on March 28 after celebrating an open-air Mass for a crowd estimated by the Vatican at some 300,000 in Havana's Revolution Square.
Benedict pressed the government to let the Catholic Church teach religion in schools and universities.
Speaking to reporters on the papal plane March 23, the Pope surprised many when he said communism in Cuba had failed and that the Church was willing to offer its help to avoid the trauma of transition.
“It is clear today that Marxist ideology, as it was conceived, no longer responds to reality,” he said. “In order to build a new society, new models must be discovered, patiently and constructively. In this process, which requires patience but also firmness, we wish to make our contribution in a spirit of dialogue, in order to avoid traumas and facilitate the way to a fraternal and just society for all people.”
He added that “obviously the Church is always on the side of freedom, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion.” But he also stressed that the Church “is not a political power, she is not a party but a moral entity, a moral power.”
Soon after his arrival on the island on Monday, the Pope made several appeals for liberty and respect for human dignity. At a shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Charity, Cuba’s patron saint, he prayed to the Virgin Mary for “those who are deprived of freedom, those who are separated from their loved ones.” And during his homily at Mass in Santiago de Cuba on March 26, he called for an “open and renewed” society, saying it is “touching to see how God not only respects human freedom: he almost seems to require it.”
But he refrained from heavily criticizing the regime publicly. Like Blessed John Paul II, who, during his visit in 1998, said “the world should open itself to Cuba, and Cuba to the world," Benedict XVI saw an emphasis on hope and the freedom brought through faith in Christ as a more meaningful and effective strategy.
A similar approach was employed by John Paul II whose visit was “a gentle breath of fresh air,” Benedict noted on this trip, “which gave new strength to the Church in Cuba.” One of the important fruits of that visit, he pointed out, was improvements in Church-state relations, “in a new spirit of cooperation and trust,” even if there are many areas where greater progress “can and ought” to take place.
Pope Benedict, who leaves Cuba this evening, is therefore placing an emphasis on reconciliation, but also expanding John Paul II’s strategy of dealing with Cuba by offering the Church’s help to the government as it pursues reform. And in Benedict XVI’s own characteristic way, he is presenting the Church’s case with simplicity and complete transparency, always with a much longer term view in mind.
Many dissidents have misgivings about this approach, reminiscent of the “Ostpolitik” strategy employed by the Church towards the Soviet Union prior to John Paul II’s pontificate. They believe any friendliness given to the regime awards it with legitimacy and will therefore render his visit ineffective.
They also feared that the Pope, who did not meet opposition activists on this visit, would skate over human rights violations, although he is naturally well aware of the abuses. He raised concerns in a 55-minute meeting with Raúl Castro on Tuesday, and on leaving he criticized government restrictions and the 50 year-old U.S. embargo.
All Cubans should be able to forge “a society of wide horizons, renewed and reconciled," he said. "No one should feel excluded from taking up this exciting search by the limitations of their basic freedoms, or excused from this by indolence or a lack of material resources — a situation which is worsened when restrictive economic measures, imposed from outside the country, unfairly burden its people.”
But his comments throughout the visit were carefully measured. As Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi observed shortly before this visit, Cuba is on the threshold of what is potentially “a new epoch,” one in which reform “may be realized in a climate of development, freedom and reconciliation."
Appealing to faith and reason, and handling the Cuban regime with kid gloves as opposed to being heavily critical is, in the Pope’s view, more likely to produce lasting fruit. It’s not without risks but it just may — as many Cubans appear to believe — help lead to true renewal and hasten the eventual end of the regime.
Edward Pentin began reporting on the Vatican as a correspondent with Vatican Radio in 2002. He has covered the Pope and the Holy See for a number of publications, including Newsweek, and The Sunday Times. Read more reports from Edward Pentin — Click Here Now.
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