A Sunny Day in Rome; in the View of One Who Knows Them Both, Pope Paul II and Fidel Castro Have Long Fascinated Each Other

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In the view of one who knows them both, Pope John Paul II and Fidel Castro have long fascinated each other.

JOHN PAUL II HAS FASCINATED AND ATTRACTED FIDEL Castro since he was elected pope more than 18 years ago. And the Cuban revolutionary has long intrigued the Polish pontiff as he watched Castro from afar with growing, if discreet, curiosity. When the anti-communist pope and the communist leader finally met at the Vatican last Tuesday, it was almost a predestined event-not simply for diplomatic reasons, but for much deeper personal ones.

Having known Castro since the birth of the Cuban revolution in January 1959, I do not remember his ever displaying the kind of deference, if not veneration, that he showed John Paul II on that Roman morning. Watching him on television, as he murmured his greetings to the pope, I had the sensation of a Fidel Castro who, for perhaps the first time in his life, was humble and tender.

I have had the privilege of knowing the pope since 1998. Last week I was struck by the paternal warmth with which John Paul welcomed Castro, putting both his hands on Fidel's and gently guiding him into his private study for their 35-minute conversation. The pope must have greeted thousands of distinguished visitors at the Apostolic Palace since 1978, but this was something very special. Castro, not prone to such language, called it "a miracle."

What is the quasi-mystical bond that seems to exist between these men? First and foremost, they share a profound dedication to what each sees as social justice. Communist dictator and Roman Catholic priest, they have been preaching its virtues continuously in every imaginable context. In their respective speeches at the World Food Summit in Rome last week, both, in effect, denounced the affluent West for letting the developing world starve. In a 1987 book, Castro praised the pope's support for granting land to landless peasants. And in his Rome speech, Fidel praised John Paul for his defense of women, Latin American Indians and other underprivileged of the globe.

John Paul, for his part, is known to have read at least some of the speeches that Castro had been insistently sending the pope for years. Separately, John Paul has been making quiet inquiries about Castro. In the course of a lunch in his private dining room in Febmary 1994, for example, the pope asked me a few pointed questions about Fidel. Both John Paul and Castro are highly instinctive when it comes to their attraction to others. This has made it possible for both of them to embark on the ostensibly startling exercise of the Vatican handshake and John Paul II's acceptance of Fidel's invitation to visit Cuba for the first time.

Both men are also pragmatic risk takers, supremely assured and authoritarian, as well as daring innovators. This is why, I think, they understand each other so well. Both command great intellectual power and a knowledge of history--both are the sons of small, often subjugated nations. Fidel realizes, as does John Paul, that the age of Marxism-Leninism is gone forever, and both have evidently concluded that it is time to concentrate on the future. …