ROME — As the countdown to Pope Francis’ maiden voyage to the United States winds on, it may be easy for Americans to forget that before he touches down in Washington DC on Sept. 22, he’ll have spent three days in Cuba.
The decision to combine the two outings is more than coincidental, Vatican officials speaking on background say.
In part, it’s a way for the pontiff to broadcast a message to America before he even arrives, both praising the recent end to a Cold War standoff with Cuba and also reminding the United States of its international responsibilities, especially in the developing world.
As is customary for history’s first pope from Latin America, during his three-day visit to Cuba, he’ll have a jam-packed schedule, delivering at least seven speeches, celebrating two open-air Masses, and meeting with bishops, families, and youth in three different cities.
He’ll do all that in just 68 hours, according to the official Vatican itinerary.
Two routine stops on foreign trips, however, are missing from the schedule: a session with the poor and with prisoners, although he’ll meet both groups in the United States.
This will be Francis’ first-ever visit to Cuba, but he’ll be the third pope to travel to the island nation after St. John Paul II in 1998 and Benedict XVI in 2012. Only one other Latin American country has welcomed all three – Brazil, the country with the world’s largest Catholic population.
This papal outing to Cuba, however, comes with an unprecedented twist: Francis will be the first pontiff to bundle his visit to Cuba with a subsequent stop in the United States. That’s a tour package that became feasible only after the two countries, with an assist from the pope and the Vatican, began the process of restoring diplomatic relations last December.
On background, sources involved in the behind-the-scenes diplomacy say Francis doesn’t deserve all the credit, because there were many players involved.
With all due respect to the pope, one source who requested anonymity told Crux that the pope was lucky enough to “harvest the fruits” of 50 years of work by the Vatican, the US Bishops Conference, and its Latin American counterpart.
Francis, too, has minimized his role in the process.
During the plane ride back from his Latin American tour last July, he shrugged off praise for restoring diplomatic relations between the two nations, saying the primary credit goes to the two countries themselves. He also gave thanks to the Lord, saying divine intervention played a role.
In truth, the Vatican’s role in Cuba/US relations is almost as old as the conflict itself.
To begin with, Cuba has the distinction of being the only nation in the world with an officially Communist government with which the Holy See, the formal diplomatic name for the Vatican, never broke off diplomatic relations.
As a brief history lesson, the United States broke ties with Cuba in 1961 after the Castro revolution. A year later, during the Cuban missile crisis, Pope St. John XXIII wrote to both John F. Kennedy and Russia’s Nikita Khrushchev, much like Francis wrote to Obama and Castro, in an effort to avert a war.
Kennedy would later call the pope’s letter “the first step down the path of peace.”
The hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Cuba has long had ties with its American counterparts, in part because of the large Cuban diaspora in America, and has received support from the US bishops in various forms.
As far back as 1972, while the Cold War was at its peak, the US bishops’ conference backed a 1969 request by Cuban bishops to end the American embargo against Cuba. In 1985, American and Cuban bishop conferences exchanged a visit.
The website of the US Catholic Bishops Conference has a list of letters, statements, and testimonies on US/Cuban relations dating back to 1989. They’ve called for an end to the embargo and reintegrating Cuba into the community of nations, but at the same time occasionally criticized Cuba’s record on human rights and religious freedom.
The same engagement has occurred on the local level of the American Church. During the 1980s, the Archdiocese of Boston became one of the most prominent actors in the play of US-Cuba relations, and the list could go on.
Bringing the story into the present, many observers believe Francis’ impending visit could have a direct impact on the life of the local Catholic community.
Cuba has a population of 11 million, 60 percent of which is officially Catholic, though levels of practice of the faith are generally believed to be substantially lower. For decades, admitting to being Catholic publicly led to loss of work opportunities and access to education, not to mention political persecution.
After Cuba was officially declared a Socialist state in 1961, the Catholic University of Villanueva was closed, 350 Catholic schools were nationalized, hundreds of churches were expropriated, and 136 priests were expelled. In 1969, communist leader Fidel Castro abolished the paid Christmas holiday, claiming he needed everyone to work on the sugar harvest.
It wasn’t until 1976 that a new constitution guaranteed freedom of worship, but it was restricted to Church premises.
John Paul II’s visit in 1998 quite literally brought Christmas to the island, since as a welcoming gift the government announced the reinstatement of the holiday.
Benedict XVI’s visit in 2012 had a similar impact: As a direct result, the government of Raúl Castro allowed Catholics to celebrate Good Friday. That year, the churches through the country were allowed to have outdoor processions for the first time in decades.
In both cases, however, the pontiffs also faced criticism in some circles, especially among Cuban emigres in the United States, for not challenging the Castro regime more directly. Benedict, for example, was faulted for not scheduling a meeting with the “Ladies in White,” a celebrated group of Cuban women who wear white dresses for their anti-Castro protests.
Francis’ footprint in Cuba, although not complete, is already visible.
In July, for the first time since its foundation in 1965, Granma, the newspaper of record for the Cuban Communist Party, agreed to reproduce in full a message from the local bishops conference regarding the papal visit.
Another unprecedented fallout of the yet-to-occur visit was the historic appearance on the public television network of Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino, the first cardinal to ever welcome three popes. (He was created a cardinal in 1994 by John Paul II).
Earlier in September, the prelate went to the TV studio, a first in 60 years, and dared to talk about issues that until now have been considered taboo – political prisoners, and, without mentioning the name of the group, the Ladies in White.
In 2010, with the support of Raúl Castro, Ortega was placed in charge of negotiating the release of more than 100 prisoners, and most Cubans expect him to play a similar role in the months to come.
In fact, another result of Francis’ visit is the release of more prisoners: Cuba announced Friday that it is releasing 3,522 prisoners before Francis arrives, the third time it has granted inmates freedom before a papal trip.
The Council of State said the prisoners to be freed include a mix of women, people younger than 20, inmates suffering from illnesses, and people whose terms were coming to an end next year. The government won’t release people convicted of serious crimes.
Raul Castro released more than 2,900 prisoners in March 2012 before the visit of Pope Benedict. Fidel Castro released about 300 when Pope John Paul II visited in 1998.
Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, for one, believes the roles played by Ortega and other Catholic leaders are critical to ensuring a peaceful transition to greater religious freedom.
During a meeting at Florida International University Miami last week, Wenski said the Church wants to work towards a “soft landing … because the alternative would be chaos.”
According to Argentine journalist and economist Gustavo Clariá, one of the keys of Francis’ message in Cuba will be reconciliation.
“From the moment in which the churches were confiscated and Catholics were excluded from the only political party, to declare one’s faith meant being at risk, losing jobs, being banned from teaching, and from studying,” Clariá said. “For those who remained active in the Church, this was a time of martyrdom.”
The journalist is a member of the Focolare movement, a Catholic group for lay people currently active on the island.
Clariá told Crux that the situation led many Catholics to deny their faith. But the slow yet sure steps toward religious liberty in the past two decades, he said, have allowed many to return to the Church.
In some cases, he said, bishops are compelled to call these people – who, after renouncing their faith, had the chance to receive an education as lawyers or accountants – to help them run the diocese.
“Understandably, those who kept the flames of the faith alive feel some uneasiness, jealousy,” Clariá said.
Francis, too, has spoken about the Cuban need for dialogue and reconciliation. Back in 1998, when he hadn’t yet been named archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio wrote a short book called “Dialogues between John Paul II and Fidel Castro.”
In the booklet, Bergoglio harshly criticized socialism, and by extension Castro’s atheist revolution, for denying individuals their “transcendent dignity” and putting them solely at the service of the state.
More than 17 years ago, Bergoglio also denounced the US embargo and economic isolation of Cuba which, he said, had impoverished the island. The first chapter of the book is titled, “The value of dialogue” and talks about the country’s need to overcome its isolation, and the government’s hostility toward the Catholic Church.
Quoting both John Paul and Castro’s speeches during the trip, Bergoglio noted that the two sometimes talked past one another, with the Polish pontiff insisting on a space for the Church to operate in Cuba and Castro on the similarities between Marxism and Christianity.
“But they both had to listen to each other,” he wrote.
Pope Francis’ pastoral visit to Cuba and the United States will be his third visit to the Americas after Brazil in 2013 and Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay in July. It will be his 10th international trip since his election in 2013.