Havana, Cuba, Mar 26, 2012 (CNA/EWTN News) -
As Pope Benedict's historic March 26-29 visit to Cuba begins today, several lay Catholic leaders on the island voiced support for the Cuban bishops' non-confrontational stance toward the Communist government.
CNA spoke with various lay leaders involved in the Church’s ministry in the cities of Holguin and Santiago – where the Pope will be welcomed on Monday afternoon – on comments by certain dissidents in Cuba and abroad who accuse the bishops of not taking a stronger stance against the Castro regime or of not using their moral authority to push for a quicker transition to democracy.
Because of the delicacy of the situation, the leaders agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity.
During their remarks to the agency, they all emphasized that the local bishops' relationship with the government is more complex than what is usually seen from abroad and in the media.
For example, Pope John Paul II's 1998 visit to Cuba did not produce visible political changes, it did open a “radically different” era, in the words of one lay leader in Santiago.
A prominent lay woman in Holguin said that unlike some Catholic communities behind the Iron Curtain, such as Poland, “The structures of the Catholic Church in Cuba completely disappeared.”
“The Church not only lost innumerable properties, but also the right to any kind of education, association or lay organization.”
Consequently, religious ignorance and disinterest in the Catholic Church, especially among the so-called “intermediate generation” – those born before or shortly after the Communist revolution – became a massive phenomenon.
“In Santiago, for example, there are more people who practice Santeria than go to Mass, and many of those who attend Mass practice Santeria,” another lay leader from this western Cuban city said.
They explained that Pope John Paul II’s visit over a decade ago not only opened the door for local churches to recover confiscated properties, but also to receive international aid to repair churches and even build new ones.
In fact, the slow construction of a new church located along the route between Holguin and Santiago can be clearly seen from the highway that connects the two cities. A statue of Our Lady of Charity – the patroness of Cuba – is already on display at the new church.
Likewise, the Cuban government has returned to the Archdiocese of Santiago most of the properties surrounding the Cathedral – which is currently under renovation – and the space once occupied by a popular ice cream shop has now become a Catholic book store displaying posters announcing the imminent visit of Pope Benedict XVI.
But the most important achievements are not material ones, said another lay leader from Holguin.
“Although we have not regained the right to attend Catholic schools or universities, the options for association and education have grown almost explosively,” he said.
He also pointed out that lay leaders, including himself, from many Cuban dioceses have been granted access to travel to other countries, especially Mexico, to receive advanced formation in catechesis, family ministry, communications and other fields of study.
“Some of us are teaching pastoral formation classes as well as career studies to a growing number of young people,” one lay leader in Santiago said. “Because of this, a new generation of young people are growing close to the Church and receiving formation in faith,” he added.
Many of these programs are attracting interest, as various Cuban dioceses have been authorized to establish agreements with foreign universities – mostly in Spain – and thus issue college degrees. “This was something unimaginable just a few years ago,” he said.
The local laity recognizes that the bishops of Cuba are the target of criticism from internal dissidents and from a large number of Catholic Cubans living in exile, who would like to see them take on a more vocal role similar to that adopted by the Church in Poland.
They are also frustrated because the official schedule for the Pope’s visit does not include a meeting with dissidents such as the “Women in White.”
The lay leaders noted that it’s not the bishops but the government that makes the final decisions regarding the Pope’s agenda, and they acknowledged that they did not know if the bishops had proposed including a meeting with the political dissidence in his agenda approved by the government.
However, the leaders explained that the bishops have preferred to prepare the Church so that when a new era for country arrives, there will be a significant number of committed lay people, which until recently were almost non-existent.
“Is this a risky decision that could have a high political cost in the future? For sure,” one of them said. “Could the bishops have a more energetic role in support of political prisoners or calling for political changes on the island? Possibly, yes,” he added.
Nevertheless, he denied that the bishops of Cuba are avoiding a confrontation with the government out of fear or convenience.
The bishops' decision is a prudential judgment, one of the lay leaders added.
“It has been carefully planned and thought through. Many analysts criticize it, and nobody thinks the decision is perfect. But a better understanding of the reality inside Cuba is needed before rushing to make a judgment,” he said.
Rome, Italy, Mar 26, 2012 (CNA/EWTN News) -
The first cultural summit for African ambassadors to the Holy See is being hailed as a success by its organizers.
“It went much better than we had expected, with everybody involved very keen to do it again but perhaps over two or three days next time,” Father Theodore Mascarenhas of the Pontifical Council for Culture told CNA on March 26.
The one-day event involved over 40 diplomats from 23 embassies, many of whom flew in from across Europe for the occasion.
The group spent the first half of the morning at the pontifical council’s offices near the Vatican, where they heard a presentation by the council’s president, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, before taking part in a discussion moderated by Fr. Mascarenhas.
Cardinal Ravasi stressed the need for “inter-culturality,” which he described as a “respectful” form of intercultural dialogue that avoids the twin perils of “syncretism and fundamentalism.”
Later in the morning the delegates moved on to the ancient surroundings of Rome’s Temple of Hadrian. where the city’s Chamber of Commerce hosted a debate and discussion on social and economic history.
“The relationship with the ambassadors is crucial as they are the ones who can link in with government, culture and academic institutions in their own countries, with a view towards future collaboration with the Holy See,” explained Fr. Mascarenhas.
He said that today’s meeting was something of “a get to know each other session” and that the next gathering would be aimed at more substantial matters.
The template for the meetings follows two similar summits held last year with Asian ambassadors. At the last meeting, the Asian diplomats discussed the ethics of the global economy.
“I think this meeting is very important,” said Henri Lopes, Congo’s Ambassador to the Holy See, in comments to CNA.
He was particularly struck by a comment by the Secretary to the Pontifical Council, Bishop Barthélemy Adoukonou, who hails from the West African state of Benin. “He pointed to something very important; that culture is not just one dimension of the policy of the Holy See but it is fundamental, the substance of all the actions of the Holy See,” Ambassador Lopes recalled.
The African ambassador’s finished their day with a guided tour of Rome’s cultural center, the Parco della Musica.
Leon, Mexico, Mar 26, 2012 (CNA/EWTN News) -
Pope Benedict said farewell to Mexico with the promise that this “is not the end of my affection and my closeness to a country so very dear to me.”
The Pope bid farewell to the thousands of Mexicans gathered at Guanajuato International Airport by using the traditional Spanish expression “Adios.”
“Dear Mexican friends, I say to you "Adios!" in the traditional sense of this fine Hispanic expression: remain with God! Yes, "Adios!"; for ever in the love of Christ, in which we meet each other and will again meet with one another. May the Lord bless you and may Mary Most Holy protect you!”
“My brief but intense visit to Mexico is now coming to an end. Yet this is not the end of my affection and my closeness to a country so very dear to me. I leave full of unforgettable experiences, not the least of which are the innumerable courtesies and signs of affection which I have received,” the Pope said.
After thanking President Felipe Calderón for his words and “for all that the authorities have done for this memorable Journey, he also offered his gratitude to “the many people who have helped, even in the smallest details, to make the events of these days go smoothly.”
“I beg the Lord that all these efforts may not be in vain, and that with his help, they may produce abundant and long-lasting fruits in the life of faith, hope and charity of León and Guanajuato, in Mexico and the other countries of Latin America and the Caribbean,” he added.
Pope Benedict also reiterated “clearly and with vigor” his plea to the Mexican people to “remain faithful to yourselves, not to let yourselves be intimidated by the powers of evil, but to be valiant and to work to ensure that the sap of your Christian roots may nourish your present and your future.”
“I have also seen for myself expressions of concern for various aspects of the life in this beloved country, some more recent and others longstanding, which continue to cause such great distress. I take them with me as well, as I share in the joys and the suffering of my Mexican brothers and sisters, so as to place them in prayer at the foot of the Cross, in the heart of Christ, from which flow the blood and water of redemption.”
The Pope strongly urged “Mexican Catholics, and all men and women of good will, not to yield to a utilitarian mentality which always leads to the sacrifice of the weakest and most defenseless.”
“I invite you to a common effort so that society can be renewed from the ground up, in order to attain a life of dignity, justice and peace for everyone. For Catholics, this contribution to the common good is also a requirement of that essential dimension of the Gospel which is human promotion and a supreme expression of charity.”
He explained that “the Church exhorts all her faithful to be good citizens, conscious of their responsibility to be concerned for the good of all, both in their personal lives and throughout society.
Santiago de Cuba, Mar 26, 2012 (CNA/EWTN News) - Shortly after arriving in Cuba, Pope Benedict XVI encouraged the nation to embrace moral values that will contribute to building “a better future.”
During his opening speech, the Pope urged the country to work towards “real progress,” that requires “an ethics which focuses on the human person and takes account of the most profound human needs, especially man’s spiritual and religious dimension.”
After concluding his 3-day trip to Mexico, Pope Benedict arrived at the Antonio Maceo International Airport in Santiago de Cuba on the afternoon of March 26.
In a welcoming ceremony, he greeted President Raúl Castro, government authorities, and the local bishops, and then expressed his “heartfelt affection” for the local Church and all Cubans.
“You are always present in my heart and prayers, especially in the days preceding the much anticipated moment of my visit to you,” he said.
The Pope recalled Blessed John Paul II’s “historic visit” to Cuba in 1998, saying that it “left an indelible mark on the soul of all Cubans.”
He observed that many Cubans, including non-Catholics, saw his predecessor as “a luminous guide for their personal lives and their public activity in the service of the common good of the nation.”
“His visit to this island was like a gentle breath of fresh air which gave new strength to the Church in Cuba,” Pope Benedict said.
The Holy Father welcomed the “new spirit of cooperation and trust” between Church and State in Cuba that was ushered in by John Paul II’s visit.
At the same time, he acknowledged a need for growth, especially in the “indispensable public contribution that religion is called to make in the life of society.”
The Pope said that he shares in the country’s joy in celebrating the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of the statue of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, whom he called “the true mother of the Cuban people.”
Devotion to Our Lady has sustained many people in their faith and inspired them to work for the promotion of “all that gives dignity to the human condition and its fundamental rights,” he observed.
The Pope said that he looks forward to following in the footsteps of countless pilgrims throughout the centuries who have knelt in front of the statue in El Cobre.
He explained that he will thank Our Lady for her concern for her Cuban children and ask her “to guide the future of this beloved nation in the ways of justice, peace, freedom and reconciliation.”
“I come to Cuba as a pilgrim of charity, to confirm my brothers and sisters in the faith and strengthen them in the hope which is born of the presence of God’s love in our lives,” he said.
Pope Benedict observed that many parts of the world are experiencing economic difficulties that can be regarded “as part of a profound spiritual and moral crisis.”
Lacking values, humanity has been left “defenseless before the ambition and selfishness of certain powers which take little account of the true good of individuals and families,” he said.
“We can no longer continue in the same cultural and moral direction which has caused the painful situation that many suffer,” the Pope warned.
Many are realizing that “the rebirth of society demands upright men and women of firm moral convictions,” he said, observing the need for “noble and strong values” that will resist manipulation, as well as a strong respect for “the unchanging and transcendent nature of the human person.”
The Pope emphasized that the Catholic Church remains committed to serving Cubans “at this moment of particular importance in its history.”
Through her pastoral mission and the cultivation of “the fine patrimony of spiritual and moral values which fashioned the nation’s true identity,” the Church can aid Cuba in its efforts “to renew and broaden its horizons,” he said.
Havana, Cuba, Mar 26, 2012 (CNA/EWTN News) - In the days leading up to Pope Benedict XVI’s historic visit to Cuba, pilgrims to the country are gaining glimpses into the Church’s joys and sufferings through visits to holy sites in the capital city of Havana.
After first traveling to the city of Santiago de Cuba, the Pope will arrive in Havana on March 27.
In recent days, groups of pilgrims from countries including the United States, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic have participated in Masses at the Havana Cathedral, which is the seat of Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino.
The cathedral is known for its baroque facade and European-style art and the inside walls are adorned with paintings, frescoes and statues of saints.
Built by Jesuits in the middle of the 1700s, the cathedral is located in the former swampland area known as the Plaza de La Ciénaga.
Its history and architectural beauty are attracting the admiration of numerous groups of pilgrims, many of whom are visiting the country for the first time.
Not far from the Plaza de la Revolución, where the Pope will celebrate Mass on March 28, sits the Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón.
Named after Christopher Columbus, the cemetery has also received an influx of visitors in the days leading up to the Holy Father’s arrival in the city.
The 140-acre cemetery – among the most prominent in Latin America – houses numerous elaborate graves and ornate monuments.
Built in the 1870s, the cemetery is constructed with marble from around the world and features an ornate triple arch at its entrance.
The brilliant white marble is well maintained, standing in stark contrast to the disrepair that characterizes much of the city.
More than 1 million people have been buried in the cemetery, including Cardinal Manuel Arteaga y Betancourt of Havana, Cuban president José Miguel Gómez and U.S. Congressman Harrison E. Havens.
An important part of Christian tradition, the cemetery stands in the center of the city, a reminder of the Cuban people’s suffering.
Pope Benedict’s visit will reach out to a nation that is no stranger to suffering, subject to both political repression under an authoritarian regime and economic sanctions from members of the international community.
Vatican press director Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J. has called the pontiff's visit a “journey of hope” for a people that may be on the verge of “a new epoch” in their history.
On the papal plane on March 23, Pope Benedict cautioned that “Marxist ideology as it had been conceived no longer responds to reality.”
He called for patience and dialogue in developing “new models” for the country and emphasized that the Catholic Church is “not a political power” but “a moral power” in the pursuit for justice.
Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, Mar 26, 2012 (CNA/EWTN News) -
Pope Benedict XVI encouraged the people of Cuba to imitate Mary in having an “active and fruitful” faith which leads to authentic freedom by embracing God’s will despite hardships.
“It is worth the effort,” the Pope said, “to devote your entire life to Christ, to grow in his friendship each day and to feel called to proclaim the beauty and the goodness of his life to every person.”
In honor of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the statue of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, Pope Benedict celebrated Mass in Antonio Maceo Revolution Square on the evening of March 26 for an estimated crowd of 250,000.
He said that his first Mass in Cuba takes on a “special luster” because it falls not only in the Jubilee Year commemorating the statue’s discovery, but also on the feast of the Annunciation, celebrated by the universal Church.
He explained that he was “deeply touched” to hear of the Cuban people’s fervent and dedicated preparation for the Marian jubilee.
Mary is “central” to the mystery of the Incarnation, he said in his homily.
The Pope observed that when believers look at Mary, they are “filled with wonder, gratitude and love at seeing how our God, coming into the world, wished to depend upon the free consent of one of his creatures.”
“It is touching to see how God not only respects human freedom: he almost seems to require it,” he said.
The “yes” of both Mary and Christ reveals that it is only through faithful obedience to God’s will that we arrive at “true liberty” and “authentic redemption,” finding “our genuine identity” as the fruit of God’s infinite love, he explained.
Mary is “the exemplar and model of the Church,” which is also called to bring Christ’s saving presence to the world, the Pope said.
With the Incarnation of Jesus, God has taken on “our human reality in most concrete and tangible way,” he said, adding that “when God is put aside, the world becomes an inhospitable place for man, and frustrates creation’s true vocation to be a space for the covenant.”
Pope Benedict encouraged the Cuban faithful to continue in their bold, sacrificial efforts to present the Church’s “true face as a place in which God draws near and encounters humanity” in the concrete circumstances in which they live.
As Easter approaches, he said, Christ’s disciples must follow him “without fear or doubts on his journey to the Cross.”
He urged the people to accept opposition and affliction “with patience and faith,” knowing that the Resurrection has overcome evil and the Lord will not fail to bless generous commitment to him with “abundant fruits.”
The Incarnation also “shows us the incomparable dignity of every human life” and highlights the importance of family, the Holy Father said, explaining that from the very beginning, God’s plan called the family – founded on matrimony – is “the fundamental cell of society and an authentic domestic church.”
He called on married couples in Cuba to be “a real and visible sign of the love of Christ for the Church.”
“Cuba needs the witness of your fidelity, your unity, your capacity to welcome human life, especially that of the weakest and most needy,” he said.
Pope Benedict appealed to the Cuban people to reinvigorate their faith so that they “may live in Christ and for Christ.”
He encouraged them to “strive to build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity, and which better reflects the goodness of God.”