Imagine the line queued up behind Fidel Castro — he of the hours-long speeches to the Cuban people he led for almost five decades — if he went to confession when Pope Benedict XVI comes to town. And, of course, if the pontiff has time during his visit to the communist island nation in March.
What goes on in the confessional obviously would be a private matter between the 85-year-old former Cuban dictator and God. But reports in two major Italian newspapers that he is inclined to seek forgiveness have generated speculation about the possibilities.
“If true, this is a remarkable story — and one that has yet to catch the attention of editors this side of the Atlantic,” GetReligion.org
observes in a story under the headline “The Last Temptation of Castro.”
A report in the center-left La Republicca quotes Castro’s daughter, Alina, as saying, “During this last period, Fidel has come closer to religion. He has rediscovered Jesus at the end of his life. It doesn’t surprise me, because Dad was raised by Jesuits.”
The Italian daily also quotes a Vatican official who is working on details of the Pope’s Cuba trip, including a meeting with Castro’s successor and brother, Raul. “Fidel is at the end of his strength. Nearly at the end of his life. His exhortations in the party paper Granma are increasingly less frequent. We know that, in this last period, he has come closer to religion and God,” the Vatican official told La Republicca.
However, some raise the issue of Castro’s supposed excommunication from the church in 1963. Some observers contend that Pope John XXIII bounced him out of the flock; others say that’s a misconception.
La Republicca quotes a Vatican official as saying, “True, in 1963 [Castro] was excommunicated by the Pope, but then that measure was a measure almost automatic for those who professed Communism.”
GetReligion.org also cites a Vatican Insider column in La Stampa that says, “there is no evidence that Castro was excommunicated by Pope John XXIII.”
Besides, excommunication doesn’t bar reconciliation with the church if a penitent seeks forgiveness and is absolved.
Those who note Castro’s former hard-line position against religion cite his attending Mass during Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Cuba as proof the ailing dictator had softened on matters of faith.
And Matthew Cantirino addresses the significance of a possible reconciliation in his First Thoughts column at the First Things website
, writing: “But an event like this, if it does indeed occur, would represent such a poetic, almost-unbelievable Medieval occurrence that it is bound to seem, to many of us in the first world, like some sort of political ploy or cynical biographical touch. Yet even if political motives figure in Castro’s decision [which they no doubt do to some extent], that should not necessarily not take away from the enormity of the event. A political leader’s conversion, especially one whose entire governmental philosophy has at its core atheistic materialism, has to be scrutinized for the public effect it will have. In Castro’s case, it is difficult to conceive how the effect would be anything but an enormous positive for Cuba’s repressed Christian community.”
Amid the speculation, many Cuban bloggers insist that the Pope should cancel his trip, “their main concern being that the Vatican is putting its stamp of approval on the Castro regime despite regular reports of human rights violations coming out of the island,” according to Global Voices
Among those violations are recent incidents in which the regime blocked people from attending church.
“Just weeks before Pope Benedict’s visit to Cuba in March, another Sunday on the island — February 5th 2012 — was marked by an excessive level of violence on behalf of the dictatorship against the peaceful Resistance, for simply trying to attend church,” Global Voices quotes a blogger as writing.
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