Cuba's Communist regime has said it is very pleased that Pope Benedict XVI
will visit the country before Easter despite some hardliners who view the Catholic Church as a threat to that country’s state-run economy.
Speaking to Newsmax Dec. 14, Cuba's ambassador to the Holy See said the Communist country would welcome the Pope with “every mark of affection and respect.”
The Pope, who announced the visit at a special Dec. 12 Mass at the Vatican in honor of Latin America, didn't give exact dates, but Newsmax has learned that the visit is most likely to take place between March 23-28.
“We reiterate our particular satisfaction with news of this visit and express the hope that he will receive all the respect and love that he deserves,” said Ambassador Eduardo Delgado Bermudez. “It's very important for the people, the Church and the country as a whole.”
The visit will be timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary next year of the discovery of the image of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre, the patroness of Cuba.
The ambassador added that Cuban authorities will do “everything within our competence to ensure our people have happy and pleasant memories of the visit, as we did when Blessed Pope John Paul II visited in 1998.”
Benedict XVI also announced he would visit Mexico as part of the same trip.
The papal visit to Cuba will take place at an important time for the country, as Communist rule is beginning to falter and the country's rulers are implementing minor economic reform.
Father Robert Sirico, president of the Grand Rapids-based Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, said he believes Cuba is “looking for a way out” of economic stagnation, and reaching out to the Vatican may be a sign that the Communist regime is looking for a new approach. The Pope's deputy visited Cuba in 2008, and the Holy See's “foreign minister” travelled there last year.
Fidel Castro, who at 85 is just a few months older than the Pope, has been suffering from ill health for some time. It is therefore not inconceivable that he may not survive to welcome the Pope on this occasion. He is rarely seen in public since he handed over the presidency to his brother Raul in 2008, and even if he manages to attend the visit, his once towering presence among the Cuban people will be distinctly diminished.
Raul Castro is said to be willing to face the ugly impact of socialism on Cuba and has permitted some tentative reforms towards property ownership. But many concerns remain, including human rights violations and continued restrictions on the church. Authorities will be hoping that the Pope calls for a lifting of sanctions on Cuba — something Pope John Paul II did during his historic visit in 1998.
Whatever the structural or political changes Benedict XVI's visit might bring, his presence is likely to bring encouragement to the Cuban people, Sirico said. But he also hoped its impact won't be minimized by any distraction, as happened in 1998 when the Monica Lewinski scandal broke during John Paul II's trip.
“As one who was in Havana at the time, there was a palpable change in the atmosphere knowing that the world's attention was deflected elsewhere,” Sirico recalled. “Nonetheless, the Cuban people were greatly encouraged and there was an easing of repression again the Church, at least for a time.
“In sum, anything that puts the reality of Cuba under the microscope is a good thing, or to use the word of Blessed John Paul on his visit, "let Cuba be open to the world and the world to Cuba."
The Cuban regime remains wary of the Church which it views as a threat to its existence. “A Cuban priest told me when I was there that even some members of the Communist Party [were] converting to Catholicism,” Sirico said. “This creates tensions both within the Communist Party who cannot tolerate any religious commitment, and also within the church, where the faithful may be dubious of the sincerity of these converts.”
The Pope's visit to Mexico will also by timely. According to a recent census reported in the Dec. 13 edition of the Latin American Herald Tribune, more than 1,000 Mexicans left the Catholic Church every day over the last decade, making a total of some 4 million fallen-away Catholics between 2000 and 2010. Catholics are still the vast majority, however, numbering 92.9 million out of a total population of 112 million.
The Catholic Church in Mexico has also been affected by drug trafficking afflicting much of the country, leading to some priests transferring from parishes to avoid death threats from drug gangs.
Observers hope the Pope's visit might spur the church into devising a formal strategy on how to deal with the cartels.
But it will be the Pope's trip to Cuba, to take place when the country is undergoing its greatest transition since the revolution of 1959, which will be the most eagerly anticipated. The visit will be “a moment filled with possibilities,” said Sirico. “It will be very interesting to hear what [the Pope] says under such conditions.”
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