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. Michael

    HAITI, earthquake, Cuban clinics already there and after it they sent more volunteers and treated more people than all other nations combined, and did it immediately. US sent in the military a wks after. Hundred million plus donated mostly by Americans placed under Bush and Clinton to administer still not spent upon Haitianr except for luxury villa complexs on waterfronts and places for NGOs to live. Clinton Bush pay some od ngo cost but not one cent to Cubans who are still most givers of food and health aid there. Cuba trains and Graduates 150 american medical doctors a year, those who could not afford med school and that act alone is morethan the Catholic Church does, and schools. room and board is free to those who cannot afford. Lot of boards in american eyes, from Cold Dead Fingered flag wavers and bible thumpers and hand wringing emotions over reason all with good intentions??

    March 25, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • O'Leary

      Michael. Cuba is still the oppressor of religious dissidents. it would be good to read Armando Valladares' "Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro's Gulag." The Cuban communists (still atheists after all these years) is welcoming the pope to try to gain a few more years in power. The problem is atheism never works, whether communist, fascist, or the puerile new atheism in the blogger's basements. It preaches reason while denying free will (but no free will = no free thought), liberty while shutting down churches, experimental hard science while dreaming up memes and multiverses (to explain the inconvenient Big Bang), and preaches tolerance with the Guillotine, Gulag and Gas Chambers.

      March 25, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
  2. barbara greenway

    Please let's have a moment of science!

    March 25, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
    • O'Leary

      Yes. if communism is a science, why didn't they test it on rats first?

      March 25, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
  3. PhilG.

    I think it's time for President Obama to meet with the ruling people in VCuba and open up trade with them.

    The only people suffering from the many decades of trade embargo is the poor people of Cuba.

    Let's open things up and try to help the entire nation of Cuba up into the 21st century.

    Just mayber the ruling party will come along and modernize too so all Cubans can be free as well as have enough to eat.

    March 25, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  4. Marly

    If one really cares to understand and sound reasonably knowledgeable, one would honestly look at history with a naked eye and judge only after they had done that. That is not a human trait. It is one very few are ever able to attain. This is certainly not the place such people come...I still have lots of work to do before I can judge thumbs up or down worth listening too.

    March 25, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  5. Michael

    Someone mentioned fear od annexation by US, and well they be as an actual plan exist to do just that and through a relgious hide behind Faith Based Charty recipients! Planned for after Fidels death when State Dept and military figure Cuban people either rise up and demand change or through Floridas dissidents cause such a mess that US Churchs would provide charity relief, food to come from Dept of Ag under FEMA under Homeland Security rules. No organized religion in US today should be concidered more than a buisness. An over 150 and some estimates of 450 billion a year industry that is almost taw free. Not topic now. US People been lied to about many aspects of Cuba, not siding with anyone Cuba or US, both are dertructive to advancement of humanity. Jurt sick and tired of all the turmoil caused by blind as a bat humans who only follow the sounds they hear from political and religious BS artist, conmen. They all have their own agendas to hide behind and tell crap someone else tol

    March 25, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
  6. Danielle

    Castro is alive today thanks to the late Bishop of Santiago....when Castro was in prison The Bishop ask Batista for linnience and Castro was free....and now he knows that what he wants will be granted by the Pope......meaning that any changes will come from the Catholics.......!

    March 25, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  7. ann west

    🔴 🔴 🔴 Catholic Church and Little Boys "It's Complicated"

    March 25, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • Marly

      Ahhh...life and people...complicated. Funny, the similarities. Funnier still, many have no ability to understand God and Religion are not the same.

      March 25, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
  8. Facts are tricky indeed...atheists though are bad liars

    "As soon as the idea was introduced that all men were equal before God, that world was bound to collapse." 26th February, 1942 Hitler

    "The heaviest blow that ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity. Bolshevism is Christianity's illegitimate child. Both are inventions of the Jew." – 11th July, 1941 Hitler

    March 25, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  9. El Greggo

    Viva Il Papa!!

    March 25, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • Amelia

      VIVA IL PAPA!!

      March 25, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • El Bob

      Viva il papa vampiro!

      March 25, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • Danielle

      Let's hope and pray that God will listen to the oppress in Cuba....and that will be the Country we all love at one time in history......Viva Christ and the Pope.......!

      March 25, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  10. greenaxe

    Be more like America where church and state are practically one.

    March 25, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  11. O'Leary

    It looks like curtains for the atheistic communists in Cuba, just as all those 20th century atheist regimes ended up, apart from the North Korean holdout, after 100 million dead on a failed experiment.

    March 25, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • Lillith

      The US is an Atheist "regime". That pesky part about government shall make no laws concerning the establishment of a state religion and all. We have a government with no official religious affiliation while accepting people's freedom to have their own religion and that's a beautiful thing.

      March 25, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Darn those pesky fact things!

      Strange that 99.99% of the victims of communism were not religious. Strange that religion was not the reason they were killed. Strange that the elimination of opposition in atheist communist totalitarian countries is exactly the same as the elimination of opposition in religious totalitarian countries like Spain under Franco and Germany under Hitler and all the banana republics in Latin America.

      It's almost like the atheism was not what it was about.

      March 25, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • Davis C

      Germany under hitler?? LOL, WRONG again(no surprise).

      "Didn't the world see, carried on right into the Middle Ages, the same old system of martyrs, tortures, f*ggots? Of old, it was in the name of Christianity. To-day, it's in the name of Bolshevism. Yesterday, the instigator was Saul: the instigator to-day, Mardochai. Saul has changed into St. Paul, and Mardochai into Karl Marx. By exterminating this pest, we shall do humanity a service of which our soldiers can have no idea." – 21st October, 1941 Adolp hHitler

      March 25, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Facts are tricky indeed...atheists though are bad liars

      "As soon as the idea was introduced that all men were equal before God, that world was bound to collapse." 26th February, 1942 Hitler

      "The heaviest blow that ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity. Bolshevism is Christianity's illegitimate child. Both are inventions of the Jew." – 11th July, 1941 Hitler

      March 25, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Right

      On the belt buckle of every German fighting in WWII: "Gott Mit Uns" – God Is With Us.

      March 25, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • Darn those pesky fact things!

      What a lame attempt to change the subject. Can't you read?

      March 25, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  12. tardacus

    jesus was a communist so i would expect the catholic church and communism to be a perfect fit.

    March 25, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  13. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    March 25, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • Lillith

      Here we go again LOL!

      March 25, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • tardacus

      can prayer change a flat tire?

      March 25, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • another repentant sinner

      It has changed one for me before.

      March 25, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • Lillith

      repentant sinner .. did you get that on video by chance?! That I'd love to see.

      March 25, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  14. Plug1

    Not more complicated, than the catholic church itself...( i.e. ) pedophilia. What a strange group.

    March 25, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  15. valwayne

    Castro in Cuba did everything in his power to destroy the Catholic Church and persecute Christians. Yet despite controling the total power of the state, and being willing to imprison, torture, and kill people of faith, the Catholic Church has survived and even grown stronger in the hearts of the faithful. Obama, who wants to take the U.S. down the same path, should take note. His plan to destroy the Catholic Church and persecute Christians will not work either!

    March 25, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • Why do Christians lie so much?

      Provide evidence for your statement that Obama wants "to imprison, torture, and kill people of faith".

      March 25, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • Lillith

      These "persecutions" must be taking place in private, I just don't see it .. and I don't care for religion as a whole. I say don't persecute, just leave them to themselves and they'll eventually go away on their own .. but actively keep their belief out of government/schools.

      March 25, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • Amelia

      The sad difference is that today, the Hollywood machine and media are also behind the attempt to destroy the Church. Otherwise, their extreme left wing ideology could not be pushed onto us.

      March 25, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • tardacus

      Christians today enjoy more religious freedom and wealth than at any other time in history. jesus would laugh at your claims of persecution, jesus and early christians knew real persecution, you`re just being a drama queen.

      March 25, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
  16. god is a imaginary toy for mentally retarded pinheads!

    the pope is a nazi-loving,pedophile!
    castro loves little boys!
    what a pair!

    March 25, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • greenaxe

      Castro could have been a pro ball player.........the catholic priests are pro ball playing.

      March 25, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  17. nolimits3333

    The Catholic Church is more interested in preventing contraception than preventing pedophillia.

    March 25, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • JT

      The two go hand-in-hand since preventing contraception ensures they will always have fresh victims and future sheep. Everything the RCC does in in its own self interest you can be certain.

      March 25, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • rob

      Since the Catholic church now has the most strict rules regarding abuse and is considered one of the safest places in the world for children, you are wrong. Please research before you post.

      March 25, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  18. Don of Iowa

    Why post a comment, the over biased CNN will not let you post even though we are supposed to be in a country that believes in freedom of speech, except with CNN that freedom is always trodden on regularly

    March 25, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • ITZ UH KON-SPEER-A-SEA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      I love it when people actually think their words here are so important that the evil communist news agency oppressed their freedom of speech! Just hilarious.

      There are no human moderators here. There is only a simple program that filters out naughty words. If you said "Constitution", the post vanished because there it a tit in the middle. "Circumstance" has "cum" in it. Just break up the naughty word with a . or – or _ or a space, like Consti tution, and your very important post will magically slip past the CNN oppressors who are out to get you.

      We are having an outbreak of oppressed-looney disease. You are about the fourth or fifth person to scream conspiracy today.

      March 25, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Don should get together with Keith. They're both wackaloons.

      March 25, 2012 at 5:45 pm |

    Pope lives like a king while millions go hungry

    Pope need to sell the Vatican and use some of the money for luxurious housing and the remainder to stop world hunger

    March 25, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • Carmelo

      The Catholic Church is the largest organization on Earth that gives charity to the poor and forgotten. If you were to add all the other charities in existence, it still wouldn't amount to what the Catholic church gives to the hungry. Your statement is uneducated and hurtful. Look into how the Pope lives and learn that he doesn't live like a king at all.

      March 25, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • Amelia

      You are correct Carmelo.

      March 25, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • tardacus

      Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.
      For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she had to live on."

      giving away the scraps that you don`t want or don`t need isn`t honorable,even heathens do that.

      March 25, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • rob

      Should the US sell the statue of liberty to raise money for the poor in NY? Your coffin will be more expensive the JPJ II was. He died with no possessions. The Catholic Church gives more to the poor then any organization in the world, it's not even close.

      March 25, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  20. shawn

    My son was born in Cuba. I can tell you that when Pope John Paul visited the island that Castro removed his military garb and received him wearing a suit. A very rare and high-honor given him and justly so...Anything that helps to open up that country is a Great thing. Who cares if he's Catholic or not...if he has enough power to help open up that country to God...then that should be celebrated, no?
    The US should stop their bickering with Cuba and support things like this as much as possible...
    I think it's great that Raul has built a huge alter for the entire country to receive mass...
    Let us celebrate that.
    The country needs it - for all faiths - for Justice - for Freedom - this is a huge and wonderful thing.
    God bless you Cubanos... Viva la Cuba Siempre!

    March 25, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.