Change Comes to Cuba: Reflections on the Papal Visit

Article excerpt

BY HIS EMINENCE BERNARD

CARDINAL LAW

Archbishop of Boston

Since my return from the Papal visit to Cuba, I have often been asked if change might now come to the island. But change has already come.

It was once thought that only the departure of Fidel Castro would mark the beginnings of any substantive change. The events of the past year clearly demonstrate that this belief was mistaken. Any blueprint for a shift in policy that demands new leadership in another country is too rigid a starting point--and depending on the means willing to be used to achieve that departure, could lack a moral claim. I do not mean to condone Cuba's dismal human rights abuse record, but the fact remains that a dramatic transformation has occurred within the past twelve months in the area of religious liberty. This could not have occurred without the active approval of President Castro, who has promoted, rather than obstructed, what is now happening in Cuba.

It is not the visit alone, stunning though it is, which reflects change; events leading up to the visit must also be acknowledged. Some in Cuba place a great emphasis on the private audience accorded Fidel Castro by Pope John Paul II. However, there was also a mixed commission of government and Church officials responsible for planning the Papal visit, which constituted a novel relationship. The Church was also allowed to engage in a door-to-door nationwide mission to prepare Cubans for the Papal visit. Religious processions were permitted, as were some outside religious celebrations. The ban placed on the use of the public media by the Church was lifted modestly, by allowing an address by the Archbishop of Havana, Jaime Cardinal Ortega and the Masses of the Holy Father to be televised live nationally. Furthermore, long before the visit was planned, the Cuban Catholic Church's charity arm, CARITAS Cuba, was organizing various social service activities. While its work is still narrowly circumscribed, the right of the Catholic Church to provide organized social service has been recognized. In addition, the number of visas issued has increased dramatically, and therefore there is no longer a backlog of visa requests by foreign clergy and other Church workers. The Cuban government could not have been more obliging and welcoming.

If we are to measure change realistically, it must be measured against the past. Soon after Castro came to power, Church property was confiscated, Catholic schools and other institutional works were closed, and hundreds of Church personnel were forced to depart or, some would argue, exiled. Labor camps were also established which number among their alumni the present Cardinal Archbishop of Havana. The justification for these policies was an official version of history, which deconstructed the study of the past to serve an ideological end.

For me, the past of the Church in Cuba began in 1984. For the last fourteen years, I have been in continual contact with the Church in Cuba. In an earlier visit to Cuba, I objected to President Castro concerning the intimidating practices of the omnipresent Committees of the Revolution. These watchdogs of Marxist orthodoxy considered baptisms, the visit of a priest or regular attendance at Mass to be subversive. Castro argued that the state did allow for religious freedom, but that it was powerless to counter the widespread anti-Church sentiment of the people borne of what he described as the Church's oppressive and sinful past. During the past fourteen years there have been sporadic efforts on the part of the Cuban government to marginalize the Church by suggesting that Cuban bishops are "counter-revolutionary," meaning unpatriotic and subversive.

Against that historical background, focus on Havana, Sunday, January 25, 1998. The Plaza of the Revolution has a new face: a heroic-sized painting on the facade of the national library portrays Jesus in the familiar style of the Sacred Heart. …