Rolling out welcome mat for pope, Cuba continues complex relationship with Catholic Church
A poster of Pope Benedict XVI in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolucion, where he will celebrate Mass amid icons of Cuban communism.
March 24th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

Rolling out welcome mat for pope, Cuba continues complex relationship with Catholic Church

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.

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“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.

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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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • Cuba • Religious liberty

soundoff (272 Responses)
  1. Capt. Obvious

    Hitler was Catholic. The Vatican is responsible for more violent deaths than any other nation in history. It is not a religion, but a disguised political machine. The USA was colonized by victims fleeing Catholicism. The USA was established as a Protestant nation. The Pope was not allowed in the USA until Reagan received him in the 80's. The Vatican and should be should be wiped off the face of the earth.

    March 25, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • It's like this

      Actually, it was Paul VI in 1965, when Johnson was in office. Popes did not travel much before that. It was really John Paul II that got the whole Traveling Pope Carnival thing going

      March 25, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • KnightofStJoan

      Trying to wipe Christianity off the face of the earth began with the crucifixion of Jesus 2000 years ago. You cannot destroy something that is spiritual. Your attacks on the Vatican represent your monumental ignorance rather than any truth. Communism has murdered more than 60 million people and that is a fact, your comments are opinions.

      March 26, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  2. Lillith

    A Pope calling for "openess" OMFG!!

    March 25, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • Popey Calls For Openness

      Open your trousers, little boy!

      March 25, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  3. Blackmon

    Ahhh cuba at least its not as crappy as Mexici

    March 25, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  4. john jacobs


    March 25, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  5. BD70

    His holiness? Last I knew he was human and used the bathroom just like the rest of us. Now if someone can say different I stand corrected. Be careful what you ask for. Bringing religion back might not be such a good thing at all.

    March 25, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • The true catholic

      religion and its silly sins are the very destruction to humanity.. Most chaos in society in NOT due to sin, it's due to adults who were traumatized as children. if we instead cared for the child, then the later crimes and additions in society would be cut in more than a half. (Then again, the pope and his priest had their fair share of destroying children.)

      Time we dumped religion and acted civilized for a change.

      March 25, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
    • The true catholic


      March 25, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  6. Slox

    What an oppressive sight that cross is.


    March 25, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • KnightofStJoan

      Yes the cross is a terrible sight to Satan, evil spirits and demons, but it is the symbol of faith and salvation to those who have been given the grace to see it for what it truely is.

      March 26, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • Huh?

      "but it is the symbol of faith and salvation to those who have been given the grace to see it for what it truely is."

      Nah, it's just another idol form that you nuts worship.

      March 26, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  7. Whynot11

    Gotta love Cuba: Equality in Poverty.

    Hey lefties, how about you read a book/article about Cuba and look at the human rights violations that the Castro Regime has done.

    Hey righties, how about you read a book/article on Tolerance and not being dumb and go peddle your racism somewhere else.

    March 25, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  8. The true catholic

    http://promoteliberty.files.wordpress. com/2011/12/308685_10150345906628493_512568492_8075487_1198277801_n.jpg?w=560

    omit space between '.' and 'com'

    March 25, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  9. CantaClaro

    Who need the church when you are hungry ?

    March 25, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • KnightofStJoan

      Mother Theresa feed rice to 10,000 people per day, without her they would go hungery, so there is your answer.

      March 26, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  10. Debbie

    @ Stan Iverson: Do you feel bettter now?

    March 25, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  11. Jeff in LA

    Cuban parents be warned - watch your children very carefully when priests are around.

    March 25, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • halfbakedlunatic

      I wanted to be a priest, but I didn't have enough experience molesting children.

      March 25, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  12. Free Man In The Republic Of Texas

    is simple


    You know... Kinda like the OBAMA cartel.

    March 25, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • Free Man In The Republic Of Texas

      You have no idea how much Jack Daniels I had to drink to come up with that brain storm.

      March 25, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  13. Sean

    It amazes me that there are actually countries in this world (i.e. Cuba, North Korea, China) where a person of religion...*ANY* religion...*can* be beaten, tortured or worse for their faith. Yet American Christians claim to be "persecuted" for their religion. How? How so? Can someone *please* explain to me how Christians in the US...who are free to come and go and worship whatever God they so choose...are persecuted in the United States?

    March 25, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • halfbakedlunatic

      It amazes me that anyone in this day and age can say they believe in the god fairy tale without snickering.

      March 25, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • bob

      No one really believes it, its like denial about reality.. same thinking why a drug abuser comes up with reasons why its good for them.

      March 25, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • KnightofStJoan

      To those who compare faith in Christ to a fairy tale need to be reminded that the first 30 Popes were matyred, that is, killed for their faith. Fairy tales have happy endings. That does not include the endless lists of people who have been killed for their faith through the centuries. Many of them are Saint. Your passions for darkness do not allow you to see the light of Christ.

      March 26, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  14. information:cuba

    They look for people who will give acceptance for their corrupt, repressive system and the pope offers himself up.
    the pope wants the church collections to come to rome again.
    castro, pope ~ both sickos.

    March 25, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  15. palintwit

    And in other news, Bristol Palin wrote a letter to Obama and asked him to call her ...

    March 25, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  16. Charlie from the North

    I don't know why they don't get along. The Vatican and Cuba have much in common. Each has an insular group of men who don't pay attention to the outside world running the show, trying to spread their influence throughout the world and lead by one man who makes all of the decisions. I guess it is just a case of like repelling like.

    March 25, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  17. Jesus

    Cuba needs the Pope like a leper needs cancer.

    March 25, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • The Flamingo Kid


      March 25, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • halfbakedlunatic


      March 25, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  18. SHAIARRA a


    March 25, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
  19. Mrdifficult

    Let's face it. The biggest problem for Cuba is that it is just ROTTEN with Cubans.

    March 25, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • ignorance is bliss

      So where are you from? What makes your race so superior? Please explain you stereotype retardation?

      March 25, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  20. lefty avenger

    Jesus was the first socialist. Jesus gave medical care without health insurance, gave out free food to the hungry and wanted the over charge on the temple removed. Jesus would have loved Cuba.

    March 25, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • pedro

      are you stupid or just ignorant.

      March 25, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Raymond Throat-Wobbler Mangrove

      Radical redistribution of wealth (sell your goods and give it to the poor) – yup, Marxist.

      Yet another good reason to reject Jesus.

      March 25, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • john jacobs

      Cuba is still more inclined toward communism than socialism, despite its recent renewal of relations with the democratic world, and a key tenet of communism is faith in no God but the government. Government in Cuba was and is supposed to replace God as the object of faith and worship, so Jesus would almost certainly not love Cuba in that regard, although he would indeed support the public services provided their. On the other hand, Cuba's largely unnoticed attempts to purge its population of the crippled, gays, lesbians, and mentally disabled through "correctional facilities," similar in design to concentration camps, would almost certainly have accrued his anger.

      March 25, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
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