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. lou

    Why is CNN not reporting how they are keeping the dissidents from going to mass by harrassing them and persecuting them Cuba is one step below North Kore when it comes to Human Rights wake up its a totalitarian communist country led by a ruthless disctaroship

    March 26, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  2. carlyjanew6


    March 26, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  3. Evergreen

    Hey "Paul Willson"..do you think that the Pope goes to Cuba to deal with the dictators? He goes to Cuba because he has been given a chance to communicate with the cuban people who are the victims of the dictators..he is bypassing the blockade...which almost nobody has been able to do..

    March 26, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Rovielyn

      Jack, in my parish the etssalmite we use from WLP only contains the readings and order of the Mass for a particular one year cycle. The orations are not in it, so people aren't following anything for this part of the Mass. We never tell the congregation which Eucharistic prayer we are going to use. I've used them all including the reconciliation ones and the four other new ones that are in a separate folder. These are used infrequently by me, but when I use them no one asks me if I made the Eucharistic prayer up or where did you get it.But more specifically, as I have mentioned, I've been catechizing in Adult religious ed sessions for about five years now and I have people in those settings responding And with your Spirit as well as praying the new Gloria or Creed as an opening or closing prayer. I have our school children doing the same outside of liturgical celebrations. The children want to start doing it yesterday. I think so much of the hysteria about these changes and how people will accept them is a tempest in a tea pot and the hysteria, if any, will be generated by those who present the new missal in a hysterical way hysteria is contagious.

      April 3, 2012 at 10:42 pm |
  4. TheFlatulantOne

    Oh!! The good old days of the 40' and 50's control of Cuba are gone. I wish they were back. Then we could go visit and smoke cigars and gamble.

    March 26, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  5. Revolution Souldier

    This is just more connecting dots to the coming New world Order , the renewal of the Roman empire ,the pope is merely just a tool to get this in place the the final outcome will be One world Religion, One World Government, One world Bank

    March 26, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Revolution Souldier

      Anyone have some foil I can borrow? I need to make a new uniform.

      March 26, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  6. Ray

    This is about pope and Cuba, and you still find some stupid racist talking about Obama. Idiots pleas we are not interested in your stupid America politics of black and white, the world is bigger than AMerica fools

    March 26, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • Alex

      Claire and Fr. Allen,e2809cFor myself, the pcrfaee is the part of Mass when my attention wanders the most.e2809de2809cThe only reason I would design a survey would be to see how I could better implement the new translatione2809dThe only way we can effectively serve people is to listen to them; that has to be our first goal. That is what the Vibrant Parish Life study tells us is not being done.We need people to talk about their honest experiences at Mass such as in Clairee28099s comment. We are not going to get honest opinions by focusing on our concerns such as the New MissalI done28099t particularly think much of Fr. Allene28099s method of asking people their opinions in a large group, even in a focus group which is the way some researchers do it. You can easily get a silent majority if the first couple of people express what may in really be a minority opinion. The problem with survey monkey is that people always ask what does the questioner really want to know? it is very difficult to write neutral questions. Personal open ended interviews are best. The most important thing is to have an interviewer who is more interested in the person being interviewed and their opinions than in the survey questions or the parish program or the New Missal or a scientific theory or whatever. Then the people being interviewed just forget about agendas and the interviewer and talk about themselves. That is why I suggested recruiting parish council members for this. They should see their primary task as listening, not as supporting the pastoral staff, or making recommendations to pastoral staff. They should focus upon people served by the parish, just listening and understanding them as compassionately as possible. All organizational staffs have a hard time taking their blinders off since these are necessary to get things done. Parish members want to have a good parish experience; however many will not be honest in a group or with pastoral staff.

      March 31, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
  7. Ralf The Dog.

    The Pope is a religious figure. He has no business in politics.

    March 26, 2012 at 11:21 am |
  8. The Pope

    How many children did the Pope molest when he was a priest?

    March 26, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • leelanau

      Zero, but yer a dik anyway apparently.

      March 26, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Cheryl Llera

      Pope was too busy shooting down Allied bombers as a member of Hitler Youth.

      March 26, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  9. lolita

    fidel castro and the Pope talking about world peace and freedom to Cuba...

    March 26, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  10. Qubee

    Religion is great, it gives the instigators control over people. In Papua New Guinea the men give their "milk" to the young boys to make them attain "manhood", all in the name of religion (60,000 years old, by the way). Anybody ready for some "milk" in the name of Christianity?

    March 26, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • rob

      That complete nonsense. If you don't want to be a Christian then don't...the other stuff you're talking about is just as ridiculous.

      March 26, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • Paul Price

      You certainly qualify as an idiot

      March 26, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  11. Adevilson Silva

    It is not only the crimes of pedophilia and cover up of pedophilia. These guys are in the business of money laundering, tax evasion, corruption, cartel formation and, of course, child slavery.

    March 26, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • Qubee

      Religion is the same as Mafia, except they don't need guns for extortion, and they don't have to pay taxes. No wonder they are a lot more successful than any other organized crime.

      March 26, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • Adevilson Silva

      Qubee, the catholic church is by far the largest criminal organization on the face of the Earth – and what is even more saddening is that the facts are widely available. But people prefer to watch talk shows, Faux News and American Idol instead of getting educated about world affairs!

      March 26, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • leelanau

      Sorry azz hateful vindictive atheists like you make the world go round I suppose. Christian's job isn't to force anyone to know Christ, only to give them that opportunity. I suppose you've had your chance..... PS – Catholics have fed more hungry, and relieved the suffering of the poor than any government in the history of the world. What dagme are you serving today?

      March 26, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  12. Qubee

    Religion and Communism are two very similar dogmas, and as such cannot and will not ever exist together as one competes with the other for the brainwashed minds of the people. That's on of the reasons the Communist dogma rejects religion. Atheism, of course, exists without any dogma at all. It certainly doesn't need Communism. That's the beauty of it.

    March 26, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • Paul Price

      You continue to prove your qualifications as an idiot

      March 26, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • leelanau

      The very fact that you're typing on behalf of atheism (in particular to attempt to define religion as something that you see it as) is the most dogmatic thing I've encounter in these comments.

      March 26, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  13. Paul Willson

    The Pope shgould be now be BANNED from EVER entering the USA for any reason . Tell Vatican to respect the blockade NOT to deal with dictators.

    March 26, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • John

      Last I heard, the United States "dealt" with the dictator of North Korea the other week. I would find it silly to ban the U.S. from the U.S. for "dealing" with dictators.


      March 26, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • John

      Last time I checked, the U.S. just "dealt" with the dictator of North Korea. I would find it silly to ban the U.S. from the U.S. for "dealing" with dictators.


      March 26, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • Paul Price

      You have a bad case of cranial-rectal insertion. Get your head out.

      March 26, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • mpouxesas

      Hm..that's an excellent point. Tell them not to deal with dictators. Just like we do...oh wait a minute...do we not get oil from saudi arabia? or venezuela? Hm...ah I just realized, these are not countries where a dictator rules. They are...democracies...

      March 26, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • Socrates

      Certainly you have no shame owing one trillion dollars to the Chinese dictator and the amount grows everyday. Before you write something stupid make sure you understand that it will be read by a lot of people. Start saving money to pay your debt to the Chinese.

      March 26, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  14. Michael

    There is one thing the pope could do to improve within Cuba, tell the US to get the h*e*l*l out of Guantanamo! Until then he appearance is no more than another cross dresser trying to get others to join his group, Those to put their churchs qeputation over the lives of those little boyr who were searching for GOD and only found H*E*L*L* instead!

    March 25, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
  15. Steve

    If the Church had just allowed Fidel to follow his first calling, the Priesthood, there would never had been a revolution. But Church policy had been for hundreds of years, no native Cubans can be priests. Of Course if Fidel had gotten a shot at his second passion, a pitcher for a USA professional baseball team, there would have been no revolution.

    Revolutionary was Fidel's third occupational choice. Turned out he was pretty good at it.

    March 25, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
  16. valwayne

    The Cuban people don't need to warm to the Catholic Church. It is their heritage and in their hearts. Whether the Goverment chooses to warm to the church or not is a temporary issues. The Church has outlasted countless repressive governments all over the world. Obama should take note as he moves forward with his plans to destroy the Catholic Church and persecute Christians of all faiths. In the end the forced of hate, repression, and persescution have never been able to overcome the Church and the faith of the people!

    March 25, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
    • Joeschlag

      "Obama should take note as he moves forward with his plans to destroy the Catholic Church and persecute Christians," you say. You mean that little disagreement over whether insurance should pay for birth control? And wow, Fidel Castro is going to sit down with the Pope, but Obama is doing that? Is that because Obama is a Nazi, Communist, foreigner, Muslim, gay, baby-killing, traitor? You should know.

      March 25, 2012 at 10:40 pm |
  17. Praetorian

    To those of you who are so vehemently opposed to the Revolution I would ask what do you believe the state of things in Cuba would have been if the Revolution had never happened? More than likely, Cuba would still be under the thumb of the United States, if not directly then via its corporations and/or Mafia. Is THAT the kind of 'freedom' you would wish for the Cuban people? There are many kinds of dictatorship. If you insist on calling Fidel a 'dictator', then I submit that he is a far more benevolent one and one more concerned for the Cuban people than anything that would have arisen out of American domination.

    March 25, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
    • Pig in a Poke

      What the .... Under the thumb of corporations or mafia ?
      Oh instead they have "free" third rate heath care, free higher education for those selected as special in the eyes of the regime and no worldly pocessions.

      March 25, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
    • History

      Actually, the Batista government was really bad. You only would have wanted to be in the Cuban elite back then – the average Cuban had it really bad. Remember, that revolution would never have succeeded if the general populace wasn't extremely unhappy with the status quo. There is no way 82 untrained guys on a leaky boat could have taken the country if the people were not really unhappy.

      Not that what followed was a lot better.

      March 25, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
    • Everything in Moderation

      pig in a pke, Cuban health care isn't "free" it's FREE and it's the best in the region, as is the training for those who work in that sector. Cuba's ability to hang in there despite a Loooonnnggg and tight embargo is testimony to how well it would be doing if unharassed.
      I've been to Cuba. It impressed me a lot. Their educational system is not limited to a select few, you have to not want to pursue university to not get a university education. Because of restrictions imposed, there may be not enough work in a person's field, but there's nothing stopping them from training for it.

      March 26, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • KnightofStJoan

      If you want to know what Cuba might look like had Fidel not violently taken over this country in his dictatorship, look at Miami, a fantastic city with Miami Beach having the #1 highest price zip code in the world. Because a great deal of Miami has been built by Cuban exiles.
      You are ignorant, I have family who grew up in Cuba prior to Fidels destruction of the place.

      March 26, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • LaTuya83

      If there had not been a revolution, Cuba today would be a first world democratic republic. The Castro's and their cronies are a bigger mafia than the American mafia ever was, at least people had some opportunity back then, now there's only one class in Cuba, poor, and it is not because of the blockade, they still trade with the rest of the world, especially with Europe and China, the only problem with Cuba is the Castro mafia. Cuba need a change and it was going to come eventually the people were fed up, but the cure ended up been worst than the desease

      March 26, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      "If you want to know what Cuba might look like had Fidel not violently taken over this country in his dictatorship, look at Miami, a fantastic city with Miami Beach having the #1 highest price zip code in the world. Because a great deal of Miami has been built by Cuban exiles.
      You are ignorant, I have family who grew up in Cuba prior to Fidels destruction of the place"

      supporters of the dictator Batista then were they? and make no mistake, he was a dictator, and supported heavily by the US.

      as Kennedy said....."Fulgencio Batista murdered 20,000 Cubans in seven years ... and he turned Democratic Cuba into a complete police state – destroying every individual liberty. Yet our aid to his regime, and the ineptness of our policies, enabled Batista to invoke the name of the United States in support of his reign of terror. Administration spokesmen publicly praised Batista – hailed him as a staunch ally and a good friend – at a time when Batista was murdering thousands, destroying the last vestiges of freedom, and stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from the Cuban people, and we failed to press for free elections."

      March 26, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  18. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    March 25, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • Jesus

      -.You've been proven a liar over and over again on this blog. A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested Friday morning...

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      Plus don't forget. The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!!...-

      March 26, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  19. Al

    There is nothing complicated about this, in the type of ruler that is in Cuba their law does not allow for religion for religion puts groups of people together, and Castro does not like it if people were to gather for some type of common cause. And as such when they share pictures or video and there are more than 3 people, it's a government organized gathering, and you can be sure that one of every 5 people in any group picture is working for Castro. Let not yourself be fooled, there is no freedom of any type in Cuba, and for those that go there on vacation well they are all wearing a band so that the government does not bother the dollars being spent. Nothing is free and look closely at Cuba and how it got to where it's at now, examine the actions taken to put Cuba in the economy that it's in today, look familiar?

    March 25, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
  20. † In God We Trust †

    Jesus is the way, the truth, the love.

    March 25, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Uh-huh. You can tell that is the truth just by reading these pages, can't you? Can't you???

      March 25, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
    • WellAlrightyThen

      "Jesus is the way, the truth, the love."

      Too bad Christians don't actually follow what you're preaching....oh lets see...Gay and Lesbian equal civil rights!

      March 26, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • VanHagar

      @WellAlrightyThen (aka the Church Lady), just curious, in what way would supporting equal civil rights for gays and lesbians be consistent with following ALL of the teachings of Jesus (which includes the entire New Testament)?

      March 26, 2012 at 12:26 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.