The visit of a Pope conciliator and its fruits
Pope Benedict in Cuba in the news report written for 30Days by the Cardinal Archbishop of San Cristóbal de La Habana
by Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino
Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino welcomes Benedict XVI at the ‘José Martí’ International Airport in Havana, Cuba, 27 March 2012 [© Osservatore Romano]
The apostolic visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Cuba took place in the context of the celebration of the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of the image of the Virgin of Charity in the sea waters near the northern coast of the eastern region of the island. The image was carried through the mountains south of the region where there are copper mines; from this came the popular devotion to the Virgen del Cobre.
The Pope’s visit to Cuba was preceded by a missionary pilgrimage of an image of Our Lady of Charity, greatly venerated by our people, that traveled more than thirty thousand kilometers through fields, towns, villages and new settlements. Hundreds of thousands of people participated in genuine and real expressions of faith. What most impressed was not the multitudes, even though extraordinarily numerous, but it was contemplating the faces, seeing the pious gestures of men and women, youths, adults and children who knelt down, raised their arms, made the sign of the cross with tears in their eyes, and shouted: “Long live the Virgin” at the passage of the image. It was a great national mission that allowed us to evangelize in the squares, in gardens, on the streets with cars equipped with loudspeakers, distribution of leaflets and so on. We verified in this mission, that faith is present in a very high percentage of Cubans.
At the end of the mission, in December of 2011, the Pope’s visit to Cuba was announced.
The news was received with extraordinary joy. His presence came to confirm this faith of our people, to clarify it with his word. The Holy Father’s visit to the shrine of the Virgin of Charity in El Cobre was very significant and highly appreciated by all.
The Pope, in his own words, from his arrival in our country, noted that he came as a Pilgrim of Charity “to confirm my brothers in the faith and encourage them in hope”. They were the right words and were heard with emotion by all those who, like me, were lucky enough to receive the Successor of Peter.
The Holy Father wanted to emphasize that his visit was in continuity with that of Blessed John Paul II. That pastoral visit changed the life of the Church in Cuba. The Catholic Church had then its first public demonstrations and the first television broadcasts of Catholic ceremonies. The whole world and the Cubans themselves understood that the Church was alive, that it had continued to be present in all the years of hardship and silence. After that event Christmas began to be celebrated as a public holiday, there were several radio interventions by different bishops on some important dates, media coverage of the death and funeral of John Paul II was truly impressive.
Since then the appearances of the Pope on television for Christmas, Easter and on other occasions, such as the Via Crucis on Good Friday begin to become frequent, the publications of the Church spread, and are greatly appreciated. After that visit, entrance into the country of religious personnel, priests and consecrated men and women was allowed, and the Church had the opportunity to publicly celebrate its faith with processions and other ceremonies. ‘Houses of prayer’ where the faithful gather for catechesis and the celebration of Holy Mass and other activities were opened in hundreds of places.
The Mass celebrated by Benedict XVI in the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, 28 March [© Osservatore Romano]
The Church, in recent years, has increased its social activities through Caritas, which has a large national voluntary force. In the case of hurricanes, the intervention of Caritas is effective and rapid in the distribution of aid coming from foreign countries and from what the Church in Cuba provides in these circumstances.
Caritas has many canteens in the parish churches and other localities for senior citizens. It also has nurseries for children, aged one to five years, from dysfunctional families, in different parts of the country. These charitable activities of Caritas are much appreciated by the people.
Two years ago the Church, faced with the conflicts that arose with the wives of prisoners, who were demonstrating so that their husbands be released, turned to the government to express its concerns and was invited to mediate with the women, asking them to formulate their concerns and desires. Among other things, they proposed to the cardinal that their husbands be sent to another country because it was “better to be separated by the sea rather than by the prison bars”.
These proposals were brought to the attention of the government which decided on the release of fifty-three prisoners in the Spring of 2003, having them leave the country for Spain, which received them with their families. Of the fifty-three released, twelve remained in Cuba by their own wish and, later, one of them went to the United States. They went on to release of over one hundred and twenty prisoners for political reasons. Some of these had been jailed for several years. The Archdiocese of Havana receives requests from family members of prisoners, and if these are cases of prisoners of conscience or for political reasons, we can present them to the authorities.
After the release of the number of prisoners mentioned above new appeals of this kind were not submitted.
We must remember that the prison ministry, which deals with all kinds of prisoners, is well organized: working with the families of prisoners, there are regular visits in prison, with catechesis and celebration of the Eucharist.
Pope Benedict XVI was informed of the progress of the life of the Church after the visit of Blessed John Paul II. Because of this he wanted to follow in the footprints left by that papal trip. In his homily in Havana, the Pope raised the issue of truth, the only one on which – he said – it is possible to establish an ethic that can be accepted by all. He announced Jesus Christ as the truth and pointed out, true to the spirit of his pontificate, the perplexities of man in front of the truth, like Pilate “who had the truth before him” and did not see it in Christ. The Pope insisted on the rationality of faith in the face of those who arbitrarily oppose faith and reason. All these clarifications acquire a special importance for us.
He indicated in truth the foundation of freedom and referred to the steps that have been taken with respect to religious freedom in Cuba, hoping that its possibilities would be extended even more.
In this regard, he made reference both to the Church’s participation in education and that of Christians in the construction of society. The Pope asked – at the time of his departure – that no one feel prevented from taking part in this exciting task “through the limitation of their proper fundamental freedoms, or feel excluded from it through negligence or lack of material means”.
The Pope thus called on all Cubans to participate in the construction of “a society of broad horizons, renewed and reconciled”, overcoming any difficulties and obstacles in this endeavor.
The greeting of the President of the Council of State, and of the Cuban Council of Ministers, Raúl Modesto Castro Ruz, at the end of the ceremony [© Osservatore Romano]
In summary, the Pope made an appeal to eliminate, at national and international levels, “immovable positions and unilateral viewpoints”, proposing that the patient and sincere dialogue that engenders hope be continued.
In his first words about Cuba, on the plane taking him to America, the Pope made reference to changes in the socio-economic model needed for Cuba and said that we Christians should support this research, “patiently and constructively, avoiding traumas”. It‘s a correct suggestion, because any sudden or violent jump produces social traumas that leave negative imprints in people.
The Holy Father, true to his core program as the Successor of Peter – the one he presented to the cardinals assembled for the conclave when he explained that he chose the name Benedict because his last predecessor who had borne this name was a Pontiff conciliator – came to Cuba really doing honor to his pontificate’s project of conciliation, and he did so without silencing the truth, with clarity and at the programmatic height of his supreme ministry.
We feel even now that the trace of his steps marked the Cuban people, deeply impressed by the gentleness and goodness reflected in the words and gestures of Pope Benedict XVI, which are a special blessing for the entire Cuban nation and for each of us. This visit of the Holy Father during Cuba’s Marian Jubilee Year encourages us and strengthens us in celebration of the Year of Faith that the Successor of Peter offers with such solicitude to the universal Church. It will be a special occasion to deepen the faith we have found to be alive in the hearts of our Cuban brothers and sisters.
There remains, therefore, a profound feeling of gratitude and hope in our Church in Cuba and in all our people because of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI, and a moving memory because of his presence among us.