Ii was a good trip for the Pope to Mexico and Cuba at the end of March. Both countries have seen terrible confrontations between Church and state and political wounds still need to be bound up and peace promoted. “The light of the Lord, has shone brightly during these days”, Pope Benedict declared, “may that light never fade in those who have welcomed it; may it help all people to foster social harmony … which can be the basis for building a society of broad vision, renewed and reconciled”.
As he prepared to bid farewell to President Raúl Castro and leave Havana for Rome on 28 March, Benedict made an optimistic appeal for greater civic understanding in the seriously rent fabric of a Cuban society. None of his hearers could be unaware of the intense efforts made in 1959 and the first years of Castro rule to strengthen social change in the sometimes corrupt and rotten structures of the island - to the intense hostility of many leading figures in the Catholic hierarchy. Beside such efforts as agrarian reform there was the darker side of Fidel Castro’s removal of Christmas from the Cuban civic calendar, the removal of believers from state structures, the eclipse of Catholic education and the ejection of many non-Cuban clergy.
On the part of the Church there was the flight of several senior Cuban pastors from their diocese as the revolution got under way. Pope John XXIII had to order the aged Cardinal Manuel Arteaga, for long a supporter of Batista, who like Bishop Manuel Rodríguez of Cienfuegos had gone to the Argentine embassy in the capital, to stay at his post as Archbishop of Havana. Among Vatican and US clergy there were successful efforts to persuade thousands of catholic parents to send more than 14,000 of their children to the US in Operation Peter Pan. Washington provided the youngsters with visas, but denied such visas to their parents. This resulted in the scandalous destruction and scattering of many families.
It was only the efforts of such men as Mgr Cesare Zacchi the papal nuncio in Havana - who found words to applaud the good actions of the government and declare Fidel Castro to be “a man with deep Christian values” and thereafter went on to head the diplomatic academy in the Vatican - that Church-state relations were not damaged further. Though he did not mention Washington by name in the same farewell speech to President Raúl Castro the Pope, as expected, made firm reference to the US illegal blockade of Cuba’s foreign trade and finance, consistently condemned by overwhelming votes in the UN General Assembly. Following the example of Pope John Paul II in 1998 he roundly condemned the boycotters by declaring that “international restrictive economic measures, imposed from outside the country, unfairly burden its people.”
There was one immediate response to Benedict’s visit. Good Friday this year was declared a public holiday amid expectation that the celebration would become permanent in the same way as John Paul’s visit brought an end to decades of official boycott of Christmas.
Benedict and Fidel found half an hour to talk together, an occasion which was described by both sides as a cordial – even jocular – encounter between two old men: the Cuban asked the Pope to recommend him books he could comment on in his frequent columns on the web.
On his outward flight to Mexico amid references to the that country’s demented import of firearms from the US and to the bloodshed generated by US demands for drugs from Mexico, Benedict had said, “Today it is obvious that the Marxist ideology as it was conceived no longer corresponds to reality …. New models must be found, patiently and constructively.” The two Castros have been abandoning the Marxism-Leninism which in the time of the USSR had been declared the official ideology of the state. Now the Cuban government favours the ideas of José Martí - the Cuban national hero who fell in battle against Spanish rule shortly before 1898 when Washington decided to invade the island and incorporate it into the US orbit. The papal visit afforded an opportunity apply healing balm on past conflicts not only in Cuba but also in Mexico a country where memories persist of the savage Cristero war in the 1920s between believers and unbelievers. At the end of March Cardinal Norberto Rivera, archbishop of Mexico City, gave Manuel Franciscio Aguilera, the Cuban ambassador there, copies of the marriage lines of Martí and his bride Carmen Zayas Bazán who wed at 6.30 a.m. in the Sagrario, adjacent to the city’s cathedral on 20 December 1877, one of which was dispatched to Raúl Castro. The gesture, affecting as it did Mexico, Cuba and the Vatican, was all the more telling given that Martí was widely known as a freemason and no great friend of the Church. Indeed the fact that he and his bride had a Church wedding would have surprised many Cubans.
In his words of farewell amid a rainstorm at Havana’s José Martí International Airport Raúl Castro concentrated on a claim to always seek the full dignity of the human person and said, “We are conscious that this dignity is not built on material bases along but also on spiritual values, such as generosity, solidarity, a feeling for justice, altruism, mutual respect, honesty and an adherence to truth.” He even went on to quote Father Félix Varela, a priest and an early 19th century supporter of Cuban independence from Spain, as one who inspired work for the common good.
Many opponents of the Cuban government will certainly be mistrustful of Raúl’s remarks. But the Pope’s and the President’s words would have seemed inconceivable years ago in the bad old days when Marxism-Leninism was all-powerful in the government. Now peace was being given a chance.