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Christian Frevel {*}

In the Footsteps of John Paul II

Benedict XVI's Second Trip to Latin America Confirms the Previous Policy of the Vatican


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 5/2012, P. 235-239
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In Cuba Benedict XVI adhered to the policy of his predecessor John Paul II. While he demanded more freedom for the Cuban church and called upon the state to implement reforms, he also condemned the trade embargo against Cuba. In Mexico, too, the pope did not rely on confrontation. Rather, he expressed concern about the violence in the country, and called for peace and a loyal faith.


In late March, his second trip to Latin America (after the visit to Brazil in 2007 with the opening of the Fifth General Assembly of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean in the place of pilgrimage Aparecida) led Benedict XVI to Mexico and Cuba. In Mexico, the pope visited the state of Guanajuato, a traditional stronghold of the Catholic Church, and the city of León. Mexico had confined itself to keeping peace during the visit: the drug cartels, which have been terrorizing the country in the struggle with police and military for years, had announced a truce. In Mexico the presidential election campaign was about to start, but there were no political slogans.



The pope did not address the intra-church topic of the "Legionaries of Christ". This religious congregation was founded in Mexico and plunged into an existential crisis by the scandal about its founder Marcial Maciel Degollado. Also a meeting with abuse victims, particularly victims of Maciel, failed to materialize - although it had been anticipated by many observers.

In the past few months, Benedict XVI had decreed that the congregation was investigated by special envoys of the Vatican. The results of this investigation he did not want, so it seemed, to comment further. The visit to Mexico remained thus a happy religious festival, and culminated in a meeting with bishops from across Latin America. Benedict reminded the bishops of the "continental mission", decided in Aparecida in 2007. The new evangelization is the primary concern of the Pope. He has established for it a new Pontifical Council, and announced the beginning of a "Year of Faith" for October 2012.


A New Holiday for Cuba

Already two weeks after the visit of Benedict XVI to Cuba the Cubans could at least enjoy one result: For the first time since the success of the revolution on the island nation in 1959, the Good Friday was a holiday again. The Good Friday service was broadcast live on state television. President Raúl Castro, since 2008 successor of his diseased brother Fidel Castro, had thus fulfilled a request of the Pope. In the party newspaper "Granma" he stated that Good Friday was this year, as an exception, an official holiday - "in honor of His Holiness."

In 1997, already Fidel Castro had declared Christmas to be an official holiday - at the request of Pope John Paul II, who then visited Cuba in January 1998. Since then in Cuba the first Christmas Day (25 December) is a non-working day. For the time being it is still uncertain whether also Good Friday (as the culmination of the "Semana Santa", the Holy Week, traditionally one of the most important holidays in Latin American countries) will permanently be a day off in Cuba. In its issue dated 31 March 2012, the "Granma" reported that a final decision had still to be made by "the authorities responsible" for this question.

In addition to this outward visible sign, the Church was able to strengthen again her position in the Socialist Republic of Cuba through the visit of Benedict XVI. But it has taken decades, until the Church in Cuba could reach this position.

When in 1953 the young lawyer Fidel Castro led the storming of the Moncada Garrison and was captured, it was the intervention of the then Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, Enrique Pérez Serantes, which saved him from the death sentence. When in 1958 the revolution reached Cuba and President Fulgencio Battista took flight, this was celebrated also by large sections of the church.

Still at the end of November 1960 Fidel Castro together with a million faithful took part in a procession with the miraculous image of "Our Lady of Mercy": in a triumphal procession it was carried from El Cobre to La Habana. But the further rapprochement with the USSR and the subsequent radicalization of the party led to ever-increasing tensions also with the Church: and so a month later in an open letter the bishops of Cuba called upon the government to renounce communism. The result was finally an open break between church and state. From 1961 onward, religious radio stations and newspapers as well as the school system were nationalized.

At the same time, it was no longer possible to be a party member and member of the Catholic Church. Those who went to church had to reckon with disadvantages in education and work. All religious symbols should be removed even from private houses. The church withdrew into the sacristy. What was left to her was the purely sacramental life within the church with a few older Christians, who are today called "Cristianos antiguos", and a small group of younger, often highly qualified and committed lay people who put work and family life at risk. It was John Paul II who encouraged in 1979 the Cuban bishops to profess more courageously their faith.


There is only de jure Religious Freedom

Fidel Castro's meeting with the Cuban bishops in 1985 resulted in the permission to organize a pastoral congress. It took place in 1986 as "Encuentro Nacional Cubano Eclesial" (ENEC). The meeting was substantially supported by the laity. It acknowledged that the government fulfilled important tasks, as e.g. the promotion of health and education, and called on the Catholics as Christians to live openly and without fear in Cuban society.

The "Nightly Interviews" between Fidel Castro and the Brazilian Dominican Frei Betto in 1987 were another milestone in the rapprochement between church and state. They were subsequently published as book. "It was a mistake to confuse atheism with Marxism" was one of the key messages of the book. As a result, the government permitted the importing of a limited number of Bibles and hymnals; and it allowed nuns to settle in new, small communities, especially in rural areas.



In 1992, the Cuban Constitution was amended: Since then Cuba is no longer an atheistic but a secular state.

Since a decision at the Fourth Party Congress in 1991, the membership in the Communist Party was allowed to members of the Catholic Church. This means, de jure, freedom of religion. "The State recognizes, respects and guarantees freedom of religion," it says in Article 8 of the Cuban Constitution. De facto, however, the church encounters also since the constitutional amendment a number of resistances, especially with regard to the construction of churches and parsonages. And not everyone who openly professed his Christian faith could assume that this would have no consequences. Many people who were active in the church were denied access to a university place. To date: Authors of the by Catholic laity initiated Blog "Creer en Cuba" (faith in Cuba, for example had to accept professional disadvantages. Its founder was downgraded. He lost his professorial chair and became janitor at a university.


The "Dawn" after the Pope's visit in 1998 ended already in 2003

In September 1993, Cuba's bishops had published a pastoral letter. It mentioned the grievances in Cuba: surveillance by state security, a decreasing provision with basic supplies for people since the collapse of the Soviet Union, still noticeable effects of the embargo by the United States. The bishops have obviously not reckoned with a collapse of the system, "The solution seems to be to endure this situation since an end is not within sight," it said in the pastoral letter.

Cuba was internationally isolated to a great extent. It was at the edge of economic ruin and increasingly suffered from the U.S. embargo. Fidel Castro's invitation to the Pope was therefore also aimed at helping loosen the embargo. As a "welcome gift", in 1997 Christmas was reintroduced as an official holiday. "Cuba, with all its magnificent possibilities, may open up to the world, and the world may open up to Cuba," John Paul II demanded in Havana; and the international pressure on the U.S. government to loosen the embargo was growing. The pope accomplished that foreign priests were again allowed to enter the country, catecheses had no longer to be given only in private homes, and it was possible to renovate churches. The then 51-year-old Jaime Ortega, who had been appointed Archbishop of Havana in 1981 by Pope John Paul II, had cleverly engineered those talks.

After the ice age between church and state, the "dawn" ended admittedly already in 2003. 79 dissidents, some of them were active in the Church, were sentenced to several years of prison, because they had publicly put forward demands on the government. However, with Archbishop Jaime Ortega, who was appointed cardinal in 2005, a new generation of bishops had step-by-step become leaders of the Church of Cuba. These bishops came from the Cuban clergy and had learned to live with and in the situation of a socialist state and in a pragmatic way to come to terms with it. The former openly expressed criticism of the state was replaced by the "syndrome of learned helplessness." Since then the Church tries step by step to wrest concessions from the state.

Today, the Catholic church is the only non-governmental organization in Cuba. But she, too, has to date no official status. This paralyzes life. It is often unclear who is allowed to award a contract for necessary maintenance work of church buildings. Good projects often fail because of the "old fighters" of the party in the regional administrations. The Church primarily works via Caritas in the field of socio-pastoral action - although Caritas as organization officially does not exist in Cuba. Socio-pastoral activities are possible only in church facilities. Here the Church predominantly cares for old people who, without family and relying solely on the state ration coupons, would hardly be able to survive.

But there are also areas of freedom. In many private houses divine services and catechesis take place, and particularly the Church's courses and conferences on Catholic Social Teaching are very popular. The church deliberately invites not only Catholics but also "people of different faiths and non-believers", in order not to risk that the state prohibits the offers.


Church in the Role of Mediator

In a greeting to the Cuban Conference of Bishops in 2006 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the National Cuban Church Meeting (ENEC) Benedict XVI had written, "Only by setting out from God's gaze, a loving gaze, will it be possible to reach the truth of every person, of every group and of all who live in the same land. The experience of prayer of every Christian in the silence and humility of daily work, in fidelity to the faith professed and in the implicit or explicit proclamation of the Gospel, will be a great help in undertaking this journey."

This was interpreted by the bishops as a confirmation of their way and entailed further talks with the government - especially since the change in the office of president. Raúl Castro sought not only the dialogue with the Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Ortega, but also with other members of the Episcopal Conference.



In 2007 Archbishop Dionisio García of Santiago de Cuba, for example, achieved that the for a long time prohibited processions to the miraculous image of the "Virgen de la Caridad" in El Cobre, which is located in his archdiocese, were permitted again. His predecessor, the in 2011 deceased Archbishop Pedro Meurice, had always pursued a strict course against the regime. Garcia, who as archbishop of Santiago de Cuba is at the same time primate of the Church of Cuba, follows the pragmatic course of Cardinal Ortega. With success. It was possible to restore the shrine of El Cobre and to get back confiscated church buildings. At Christmas, Bishop Garcia has repeatedly spoken on state television (a concession to the Church since the visit of Pope John Paul II). In the Cuban media he was to be seen at the side of Raúl Castro. The meetings between church and state are for years no longer secret meetings.

In 2010, the new seminary in Havana was inaugurated. It is not, as many media erroneously reported, the first seminary on the island, but a necessary new building, where now the seminarians of various dioceses and religious orders are trained. There were also new monasteries, as e.g. in 2009 the house of the Missionary Benedictines.


Controversial Role of the Church in the Release of Dissidents from Prison

The chronic economic crisis and the growing indebtedness of Cuba, despite the massive financial aid from Venezuela, led to economic and political reforms in the country; they were also beneficial for the church. The rapprochement between church and state became visible in Cardinal Ortega's role as mediator in the release of 130 political prisoners in 2010. The release of about 3.000 petty criminals at the end of 2010 was seen as a "welcome gift" for the Pope.

Not all dissidents were grateful to Cardinal Ortega for his mediation, since they had to leave the country after their release. In advance of the Pope's visit, some of them warned from Spain Benedict XVI would only serve to justify the Cuban government by his visit. An open letter to the pope with similar content was signed by 749 dissidents. Some dissidents even occupied a church in Havana and demanded to be allowed to deliver a message to the Pope. But the Catholic Church asked the police to clear the church. "Nobody has the right to change houses of God into political trenches," said Orlando Marquez, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Havana.

Immediately before Benedict's visit in Cuba, about 70 dissidents were arrested, including 18 activists of the so-called "Ladies in White". Members of this group had also been harassed and intimidated on the occasion of church attendance, said the group's spokeswoman, Berta Soler.

The church showed, nevertheless, that she is able to mobilize the masses: Thousands took part in pilgrimages, hundreds in (unauthorized but tolerated) Stations of the Cross processions. Given the fact that only 6.7 million of 11.2 million Cubans are baptized and only two to five percent of all the faithful go to church, this may be surprising. But since the visit of Pope John Paul II in Cuba the church has constantly been growing over the years: In 1998 only 44 percent of the population were baptized, now 60 percent. The number of parishes rose from 257 to 355. The number of priests, however, is stagnating. While Cuba very slowly succeeds in forming its own clergy, religious orders or foreign dioceses send hardly any priests to this Caribbean state.


No Politics in Divine Services

Already during the flight to Mexico, at the start of his second trip to Latin America, Benedict XVI had said, "Today it is obvious that the Marxist ideology as it was conceived no longer corresponds to reality: it is no longer possible to respond to or to build up a society in this way. New models must be found, patiently and constructively. In this process, which requires patience but also determination, we intend to help in a spirit of dialogue."

Dialogue, not confrontation, should therefore characterize this visit. The Vatican as well as the bishops of Cuba had always referred to the Pope's visit as a pastoral visit. During the divine services, to which tens of thousands of Cubans, but also 800 pilgrims from the United States, mostly Cuban exiles had come, Benedict XVI refrained deliberately from making political statements. Those who wanted it could read between the lines the call for more truth and freedom; but the political discussions were held on a small scale in direct exchange with the government. Anyway, in the conversation between Pope and President, the memory of the political prisoners was present, said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi.

But there was no meeting of the Pope with dissidents or the "Women in White" - already John Paul II had acted in this way. On the occasion of the farewell ceremony at the airport in Havana, the present Pope adopted more clearly a political tone. "The present hour urgently demands that in personal, national and international co-existence we reject immovable positions and unilateral viewpoints which tend to make understanding more difficult and efforts at cooperation ineffective," said Benedict XVI, and castigated thus also the still valid embargo policy of the United States. The political leadership regarded this speech as so important that it was printed in full text in the party newspaper "Granma".



Despite pouring rain, President Castro then personally accompanied the pope to the gangway of the plane.

"The Church is not a political power, nor a political party, but rather a moral reality, a moral force," the Pope had said in the plane on the way to Latin America. For the government in Cuba, there is currently no getting around this moral power. Strengthened by the Pope's visit, the Church is the second power in the country. In order to continue working in the field of education, liturgy and charity, she will hardly do something that would jeopardize her role as admonisher. The time of confrontation with the state ended already with the visit of John Paul II.

According to Benedict XVI, a moral change is on the agenda not only in Cuba. "The world and Cuba need changes," was one of his main messages during the visit. The new evangelization, as requested by the Pope, has therefore to change not only the socialist thinking but also the more and more only on consumption focused thought and actions of the Western world.


    {*} Christian Frevel (born in 1960) is director of public relations and education in the Episcopal Action Adveniat. Previously he was editor and public speaker with various newspapers, magazines and institutions, from 1999 to 2002 deputy editor in chief of the mission magazine "continents" in Cologne.


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