01-03-2012 - Traces, n. 3

cuba: waiting for the pope

Revolution in progress
The image of the Virgin Mary carried on a pilgrimage through the streets. Mass on TV. And those (cautious) openings of a regime that is reckoning with the economic crisis and widespread nihilism among young people. When Benedict XVI lands in Havana on March 26th, he will find a country that is slowly changing, and a Church entrusted with a task.

by Luca Fiore

“Iwill retire in a month, and there couldn’t be any better way to end my service than by escorting Our Lady.” The speaker is a Cuban police officer. Our Lady is the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre (Virgin of Charity), the patron saint of Cuba. This year, Cubans are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the finding of her statue in the bay of Holguín. On August 8, 2010, for the first time since Fidel Castro’s rise to power, the government in Havana permitted the island’s most venerated image to begin a pilgrimage to all of the parishes in the country. The festivities will culminate with a visit by Pope Benedict XVI, who will be in Cuba from March 26th to the 28th, for a moment that promises to be historic.
Transported by a white pickup, the image of the Virgin has traveled through the streets, amid the wonder of the population. Her journey ended in Havana last December 30th with a grand Mass celebrated by the Archbishop of the city, Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, in the square in front of the Sanctuary of Santiago (Saint James). The state television broadcasted the event, which included tens of thousands of participants. This had never happened before. Aside from the singular case of the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1998, Catholics had always been forbidden to show their presence beyond the walls of their churches.
The Communist regime’s change of attitude toward the Catholic Church is one of the many mysteries of post-Fidel Cuba. If John Paul II’s visit was a real watershed in the life of Cuban Christians, it’s also true that the situation took years to evolve. On the eve of that visit, the constitution was changed and the State went from “atheist” to “secular.” December 25th was declared a public holiday, and the Holy See was allowed to establish new dioceses and send foreign priests to the island. Now the situation seems to have opened up even more, and the authorization of the festivities for the Virgen de la Caridad was one of the most evident signs of this. But this was not the only sign. When the government in Havana asked Cardinal Ortega and the President of the Episcopal Conference, Archbishop Dionisio Guillermo García Ibáñez, to act as intermediaries for the liberation of 115 political prisoners, the first to be astonished were the Cuban bishops themselves. For the first time in half a century, the Catholic Church’s social function was publicly recognized in the country. The recognition was indirect, but significant. It is understandable how, in this context, Benedict XVI’s visit is anticipated, inside and outside of the island, as an extraordinary event.

Pastor in Guantanamo. Monsignor Pierluigi Manenti is a tough-as-nails priest from Bergamo, Italy, who seems like he just stepped out of a Clint Eastwood movie. He is one of the 150 fidei donum missionaries who came to Cuba after John Paul II’s visit. For 14 years, he has been the pastor in San Antonio del Sur, in the diocese of Guantanamo-Baracoa. His parishioners are simple people. All of them are poor, some of them very poor. He teaches catechism to children and adolescents. In the afternoon, after school, between 200 and 250 young people arrive on the parish premises to pray, to play volleyball, ping-pong, or cards, and to have a snack–something that is not taken for granted in a country where money for food is truly scarce. For many years, the missionary was viewed with suspicion by the local authorities, but, with time, things have changed. “When I first arrived, the municipal officials with whom I was supposed to collaborate looked at me with distrust or even hate,” recounts Manenti, whom we encounter while he is in Italy for a break. “I noticed that they were very struck by Cardinal Ortega’s Mass on TV; the music, the songs, the passages from the Bible... I think they really caught a glimpse of something positive. One of them asked me to accompany him to Santiago, to attend the Pope’s Mass. The Cuban soil needs to be plowed; it is a land full of yearning, which longs for the presence of the Church.”
Of the 11,000,000 inhabitants of the island, 60 percent are baptized. But practicing Christians make up only one percent. The politics of Fidel Castro tried the Church severely, but did not succeed in quenching the smoldering wick. The plan was to drive Her to extinction. Those who declared themselves to be Christians had no possibility of establishing themselves in society. Young people were prohibited from taking part in organizations that were not of the Communist party. Aspiring priests were sent to work camps. Religion was left to the old people. Once they were dead, the Church would disappear, too. After the first years of open opposition to the regime (and consequent persecution), the Cuban bishops decided, in 1976, that it was useless to oppose the dictatorship excessively, as it would endanger the Church’s presence on the island. Their stance was to soften their tone, but without compromising. This position attracted a lot of criticism, especially from Cuban exiles in Miami.
“When John Paul II went to Havana, he was accused of wanting to legitimize the dictatorship of Fidel,” explains Father Chris Marino, of Saint Michael Parish in Miami. “The protests came mostly from those who had experienced firsthand the persecution of the ‘barbudos’ [Castro’s guerilla army, literally “bearded men”]. Today, however, many of the historical dissidents are dead and the criticisms aimed at Benedict XVI are rare and less violent.” The faithful who make up Father Marino’s parish are 99 percent Hispanic. Many of them are exiles or children of Cuban exiles. One morning, after Mass, an elderly woman came up to the priest. “She was 88 years old and Cuban. She asked me if she could participate in the pilgrimage to Cuba that our Archbishop is organizing for the Pope’s visit. She had left the island as a girl and had never returned. She told me that she felt that she had to go, to be there with the successor of Peter.” There will be 200 Cubans who will participate in the three-day pilgrimage organized by the diocese of Miami. Many more will travel there on their own.

Human fabric. Whatever it was that convinced Raúl Castro to inaugurate this new season of openness to the Church is still not clear. Even the bishops were wary at first, just as the people are wary of the government’s proclamations. There have been too many disappointments. Political analysts say that Raúl, who, unlike his brother, is a pragmatic politician, knows that the country’s problems cannot be resolved without loosening the grip of the dictatorship. One thing is certain: the economy is on its last leg and the people are exasperated. In order to balance the State’s budget, the lay-off of 1,500,000 public employees was announced over a three-year period. As compensation, the government has encouraged more private entrepreneurship for small businesses like restaurants, pizzerias, or barbers, but those who were left unemployed cannot afford the licenses, and their potential clients don’t have the money to spend. In many cases, the licenses were returned, in part because “micro-entrepreneurship” is conceived in continuity with socialism: whatever is earned above the average public salary goes to the State–which can tend to bankrupt a business. The country is in an economic coma. Raúl perhaps thought that a palliative cure was necessary. And, as a heterodox Marxist, he administered the opium of the masses.
Seen from the rural provinces, in San Antonio del Sur, for instance, the problem is even more evident. “Changing the laws is not enough. A change in mentality is necessary,” says Monsignor Manenti. “Work is still thought up, planned, designed by the State. The people are not used to answering for themselves and therefore are not accustomed to taking risks. When you take responsibility and freedom away from a person, you kill his humanity. Here, it is the human fabric that must be reconstructed. I believe that the Church’s task today is to help the people, through pastoral work and catechesis, to get back to the business of using their own heads.”
It is a position that is not taken for granted in Christian Europe, let alone in Cuba, worn out by 50 years of Communism. So, Manenti’s provocations usually fall on deaf ears. “One day, a man came to me, someone who never comes to church. He told me that if a certain deal went well for him, he would give 1,000 roses to the Virgin Mary. I answered him, ‘The Virgin Mary doesn’t want 1,000 roses. She wants you to start really loving the woman you live with. She waits for your life to change. If your devotion is only 1,000 roses, it will wilt as flowers wilt.’ He looked at me like I was crazy.” The same thing happens with the relatives of the sick people that the missionary helps, as he bends over backwards to find medicines that are impossible to find in Cuba. They don’t conceive of the possibility of doing the same for their loved ones. And yet, there are some that understand. They are the ones who have nothing to lose. “There is a group of middle school boys, for example, who bring groceries to the homes of the sick and who stay for a few moments to keep them company. Some of the sick people say: ‘I’ve never seen people come here without running away. Instead, they stay with me.’”

Open fronts. There are two fronts on which the party fears the Church the most: that of education and that of aid for the poor. Like every dictatorship, the Cuban one is jealous of the education of young people, because it knows that the destiny of the country depends on the adults of tomorrow. The Communist ideology is already failing to catch on with the new generations, and nihilism is becoming the common mentality. Yet another “unknown” is the ruling class that will replace the original revolutionaries. Gone is the historical nucleus of hierarchs faithful to Fidel, and no one knows how the new leaders, now in their 40s, will behave, because it’s impossible to know what they really think.
It is in this desert of uncertainties that Benedict XVI will arrive. He will bring comfort to the Cuban people and to the small flock of Christians that awaits, not the small or large openings of the regime, but true freedom for the Church. Many of the faithful in Havana wonder: “The Israelites were in the desert for 40 years. We have been there for 53. How much longer will we have to wait?”