March 24th, 2012
10:00 PM ET
By Patrick Oppmann, CNN
Santiago, Cuba (CNN) - Facing the stage where Pope Benedict XVI will deliver his first Mass in Cuba during his visit here this week is a giant neon billboard of a young and victorious Fidel Castro brandishing a rifle.
It would appear to be a poor omen for the pope’s visit, if not for the message printed beside the Cuban leader: “Rebels yesterday, hospitable today, always heroic.” It’s the slogan for Santiago de Cuba, the first stop on the pope’s three-day trip to the island nation.
The freshly erected sign offers insight into the changing, often hard to read, relationship between the Cuban government and the Catholic Church.
After decades of chilly relations between church and state here, including the near dismantling of Cuba’s Catholic Church in the 1960s, the Castro regime is rolling out the welcome mat for the pope’s visit, even if it is offering no apologies for its past actions.
“Our country is honored to receive his holiness with Cuban patriotism, learning, vocation, solidarity and humanity,” read a front-page editorial published last week in Granma, the Cuban Communist Party daily newspaper, which on most days offers scathing critiques of life in the United States and glorified recountings of the Cuban revolution.
In the weeks leading up to the pope’s arrival, Cuban church leaders have been given greater freedom to speak publicly. Sites the pope will visit are undergoing hurried beautification. And in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, an altar is being built where the pope will deliver mass to crowds expected to be in the hundreds of thousands.
It’s a marked change from the last (and first) papal visit to Cuba. When Pope John Paul II visited in 1998, the stage was placed off to the side of the square, as if to marginalize his influence. (Some Cubans claimed the aging pontiff was placed in a shadier area as protection from the sun.)
For Pope Benedict, the altar stands in the center of the plaza, the same place where Fidel Castro delivered many of his most incendiary speeches at the height of the Cold War, a point remarked upon by many Havana residents.
But is the leader of the global Catholic Church receiving more than just lip service from the secular and once officially atheist Cuban state?
The answer is, like nearly all things in Cuba, complex. During John Paul’s visit, he famously called on “Cuba to open to the world and the world to open to Cuba.”
And to some extent, some of those openings have taken place.
The church was considered a threat to the revolution in the days after he took power, Fidel Castro told theologian Frei Betto in the book “Fidel and Religion.”
The Catholic Church, Castro said, was “permeated by reactionary ideas, right wing ideas,” and populated by clergy who “tried to use the church as a weapon, an instrument, against the revolution.”
The church suffered greatly in the backlash, with most of the country’s priests leaving for exile. Religion was transformed into a topic to be discussed in whispers.
But life for Cuba’s Catholics changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the lead-up to John Paul’s visit. Christmas was reinstated as a holiday. Cuba went from being an officially atheist state to a secular one. Cubans were told by their leaders for the first time that they could be both openly religious and members of the Communist Party.
Now it is commonplace to see Cubans wear crucifixes and baptize their children. Church attendance, while still low, has rebounded.
But in spite of those advances, many here feel that John Paul’s call for greater openness has still not been realized.
“Perhaps the church can make a case that it’s looking at this whole thing long-term, by small incremental steps, maybe the church feels it’s moving the regime to a more open stance, more democratic reforms,” said Daniel Alvarez, a Religion Professor at Florida International University.
Outside Havana, a Catholic seminary opened just more than a year ago, the first building Cuba’s government has allowed the church to build since the revolution.
The seminary is home to 50 aspiring priests. They are the future of the Cuban church, says seminary rector Jose Miguel Gonzalez, and symbolize the strides the church has taken here.
“We have to keep progressing without fear, respectfully,” said Gonzalez. ”We have to do it despite few resources, the scarcity of priests, the few institutions we have. We don’t have any schools here, hospitals or means of mass communication.”
The church, Gonzalez said, is increasingly being sought out by once ardent supporters of the revolution.
“We have to open our doors to those people who lost their faith in a system,” he said. “An ideology and a humanism that turned out to be utopian and left them feeling cheated.”
But critics argue that the Catholic Church has more resources and power than any other nongovernmental organization in Cuba and that it uses them far too cautiously.
“In this visit the church, the pope have not made any overtures to the dissidents, a very vocal voice in Cuba,” Alvarez said. “The church has a lot of leverage and in the past has exercised it. What we are we wondering is will this pope take a step in that direction?”
Last week, 13 self-described dissidents occupied a Havana church for three days, refusing to leave until their demands to speak with the pope were met. After failing to negotiate the group’s exit, church leaders called in Cuban police, who removed the occupiers.
On Sunday, mre than 70 women who are members of “the Damas de Blanco” group were also detained before being released. The group – all women – hold weekly silent protests outside a Havana Catholic church asking for greater personal freedoms and the release of jailed family members.
While the state calls the women “mercenaries” in the employ of Washington, their protests usually do not lead to wide-scale police action.
The flurry of arrests were quickly criticized by Cuba’s dissident community and Cuban exiles, many of whom were already dissatisfied with the tone of the pope’s trip
“The church is not lifting a critical, prophetic voice against situations that the whole world sees as oppressive,” Alvarez said. “Why can’t the pope or the church insist there be more opening, more democratic reforms, more freedom for the people?”
It is not known how much the pope, a fierce critic of secularism, will press for greater religious freedom when he addresses the Cuban people and meets with President Raul Castro.
During that private meeting, church officials said, Raul Castro’s family has also been invited and officials anticipate that ex-President Fidel Castro may also be present.
If so, it may mark the first time a pope meets with a current and former leader of a communist state.
During a rare speech on Cuban-state television last week, Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino said the pope’s visit is meant to address questions of faith, not politics.
“The pope is determined to revive the faith of Christian countries that need to be re-evangelized,” he said. “The reviving of a sleeping faith, the reviving of a somewhat erased faith but one that was still in the people’s hearts.”
Some of that resurgent faith has been on display in recent weeks, when the Cuban church was allowed by the government to perform the via cruxis, public re-enactments of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion.
As a cooling breeze blew in from the nearby seafront on Friday in the Havana suburb Alamar, a procession of the faithful carried a wooden Jesus Christ through a maze of crumbling, Soviet-built apartment buildings.
“I am so happy, overjoyed,” Alamar resident Delia Betancourt said. “I never thought my family and I would have the opportunity to see the pope twice in our life. It gives us and all of Cuba great hope.”
Addressing the small crowd that gathered for the evening ceremony, Ortega told them to arrive at Mass at Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución early and to wear a good hat to protect them from Cuba’s blazing sun.
The pope, he told the crowd, was traveling to Cuba to mend wounds from the past.
“He wants to be conciliatory pope,” Ortega told the crowd. “That’s to say a pope who unites people, who is capable of building bridges.”
But building bridges in Cuba, where old divisions still stretch wide, may be a fearsome challenge. Even for a pope.
Patrick Oppmann is CNN’s correspondent based in Havana. He also was in Cuba Pope John Paul II’s visit to the island. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CNN_Oppmann for updates on the Pope’s trip to Cuba.
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