Cuba prepares to welcome Francis

Plaza de la Revolución

Revolution Square and José Martí Memorial

There is much expectation on the island for the upcoming visit of the first Latin-American-born Pope, planned for September 19-23, 2015. The expectation is certainly expressed in a wide variety of ways depending on the conscience and awareness of who and what the Pope represents. If you ask the people on the street you get all types of responses: “I think we are dealing with a great human being; I’m hoping he’ll feel at home amongst us;” Let’s hope that he brings beneficial changes for the people;” “It seems like a dream! We feel privileged;” “It’s a blessing for this small people of great heart to welcome three Popes in only 13 years.” Indeed, only Cuba and Brazil can make this claim. Many Cubans are of the same opinion and do not hide their pride over the third visit of a Pontiff – both believers and non.

Construction work is already underway on the streets and on the building facades of the Habana that are found along the path of Pope Francis’s itinerary, especially the famous Revolution Square and José Martí Memorial where Pope Francis will celebrate Mass. The same is true in the city of Holguín, which has never been visited by a Pope; at the National Shrine of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre; and also Santiago de Cuba, second largest city in the country on the east side of the island where restorations of the beautiful and historic cathedral (1522) have been completed.

Church and State. With the triumph of “the Revolution” (1959), beginning in 1961, the relationship between the Church and State has always been difficult and traumatic. “The Marxist thought derived from dialectic materialism that carried ahead the young rebels of the revolutionary government since the 1960s set the basis for the secularisation of Cuban society”[1]. During the First Congress of Culture and Education (1971) the foundations were put in place for the secularisation of Cuban society, imposing orthodox Marxism as the official State doctrine, the main reference point for middle school, high school and university education. The regulating of religious activity was decreed in the 1976 Constitution and believers were officially excluded by the Cuban Communist Party (PCC).


the National Shrine of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre

During the 1980s the grip of the regime was a bit softened, allowing the participation of Catholic priests in the different liberation movements in Latin America, in the guerrillas in San Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, as well as for allowing the visits of religious leaders on the levels of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the Grand Rabbi Israel Meir Lau and members of the Latin American Bishops Conference (CELAM). In the Fourth Congress of the PCC (1991) participation was opened to believers. There were also the important and historic visits of John Paul II (1998) and, then, Benedict XVI (2012) which marked important steps towards easing and reconciliation – all of which inspires hope for the upcoming visit of Pope Francis.

The thaw in US-Cuban relations. In spite of how much Pope Francis tries so minimise his role in easing relations between those two countries, both Barak Obama and Raúl Castro have gratefully acknowledged it. On July 20, 2015, embassies were reopened in both countries, and on August 14, 2015, Secretary of State, John Kerry will attend the inauguration of the United States embassy on the island. The American Congress still needs to approve it, and it is not by chance that after Cuba the Pope will visit the United States for the 8th World Meeting of Families (WMOF) which will take place in Philadelphia, after having visited Washington DC and New York. He will be the first Pope to address United States Congress. In an interview given to a large group of journalists during the flight to Rome, Italy, following his visit to Latin America, he was asked about the benefits or disadvantages that the “thawing” in US-Cuban relations could produce. Francis responded: “Both will gain something and lose something. That is how it is in negotiations. What both will gain is peace. This is certain . . . encounter and friendship and collaboration . . . this is the gain!”

Cuban Catholic Bishops. Recalling the visits of the predecessors of Pope Francis “who will come as a missionary of mercy,” showing the continuity among the three visits, the Catholic Bishops Conference addressed a message “to the children of the Catholic Church, to the brothers of other religious confessions and to all the people.” It mentions the recent Pastoral Letter of Pope Francis in preparation for the Year of Mercy, which will open on December 8, 2015. And the bishops exhort everyone to prepare for the coming of the Pope by performing “gestures of mercy in daily life, such as visiting the ill, sharing what one has, forgiving and asking for forgiveness, consoling the sorrowful, loving others more and better. They go on to say: we hope that these days and forevermore our houses will be places of peace and welcome for all those who are searching for mercy!” A positive sign which will certainly not go unnoticed is the July 17th publication of the entire text of the document in the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, “Granna”. Such a gesture has never been shown in more than 50 years.

20150813-01The Focolare Movement’s contribution. The Focolare communities across the island are trying – together with the Church – to offer its own contribution, geared mainly towards formation in fraternity in opposition to the “throw-away culture”, to privileging those in most need, promoting unity in diversity and proposing dialogue as an indispensable method for peaceful coexistence in a multicultural society.

Conclusion. The message of the Cuban Catholic Bishops concludes with a prayer to the Virgin of Charity, Mother of Cuba, the One whom we invoke as Mother and Queen of Mercy, that she might take maternal care of this longed-for visit. She who has accompanied our people in good times and in bad, may she obtain a great blessing from Heaven for Cuba and her children wherever they may be, whatever they may think or believe.”

From an interview with correspondent Gustavo Clariá


[1] Castellano Dennys, Sergio L. and Monterrey, Fontanella. Sin pecado concebidas, La Caridad del Cobre en las artes visuales cubanas, (Havana: Editorial UH, 2014), p. 66. (Our translation.)

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