'Given the new situation, a papal trip to Cuba would be hoped for'

Pilgrims gather in Havana for Mass during Benedict XVI's March 2012 visit to Cuba. Credit: Michelle Bauman/CNA.
Pilgrims gather in Havana for Mass during Benedict XVI's March 2012 visit to Cuba. Credit: Michelle Bauman/CNA.

.- Following the Vatican-brokered restoration of relations between the US and Cuba, a visit of Pope Francis to the island should be “expected and welcomed,” according to the Vatican's emeritus Secretary of State.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, has had dealings with Cuba throughout the course of three pontificates. His most recent visit to the nation was Dec. 4-12, the week prior to the Dec. 18 announcement of the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US. While there, Cardinal Bertone had meetings with top-level Cuban officials.

In an interview with CNA Jan. 17, Cardinal Bertone stressed that “despite the appearance that the status quo was ‘frozen', the process of opening was in action and continued, slowly and inexorably.” He added that now, given the new developments, “a visit by Pope Francis should be expected and welcomed.”

The restoration of diplomatic relations is “the outcome of a long work of preparation, which took place at multiple levels,” he said.

Cardinal Bertone emphasized that this process was “then accelerated by the fact that both the U.S. and Cuba had a convergent interest in doing so,” and was then carried out thanks to “the wise and welcome mediation of the ‘American’ Pope Francis. In this sense, the famous declaration ‘Todos somos americanos’ (We are all Americans) can be nicely interpreted.”

The former head of Vatican diplomacy underscored that “the Holy See has effectively contributed to the historical thaw between the U.S. and Cuba, as was openly acknowledged by U.S. president Barack Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro.”

On the other hand, Cardinal Bertone also pointed out the “importance of the role of Canada, one of the very few countries of the American hemisphere that maintained diplomatic ties with the Cuban regime after the 1959 revolution.”

The Holy See also has “maintained diplomatic relations with Cuba after the 1959 revolution,” Cardinal Bertone noted.

“The Church did not get stuck in sterile complaints, but has continued its pastoral actions, despite some limitations and the poverty of tools at its disposal, and thanks also to the continual cooperation of sister Churches in Europe and America,” Cardinal Bertone stressed.

The cardinal recounted that “step by step, using the increasing spaces of freedom of worship, the Church has intensified in Cuba catechetic education, as well as the presence in the world of culture and in the pastoral care of the young, providing contents and ideals to a society that was demotivated, and sometimes deprived of values.”

Since the lack of values is “a worry that both the Church and civil society share,” Cuban civil society progressively opened more space to the Church, giving the consent for the increase of the presence of priests and religious brothers and sisters coming from abroad.

Cardinal Bertone recounted that “a progressive opening toward the Church was especially seen in two decisions: the authorization to carry on pastoral care for inmates, and access to spaces in media.”

Cardinal Bertone hopes that these spaces will “continue to enlarge, so that the Church may offer its help to Cuban society.”

The cardinal has visited Cuba five times, so he knows well the internal process of progressive opening the island is experiencing.

“My first trip took place in 2002. I was secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and I went to Cuba for the coronation of the Statue of the Madonna in the Madonna del Buen Viaje Shrine in Santa Clara. On that occasion, I had a special authorization to preside over a solemn procession,” recounted Cardinal Bertone.

In 2004, Cardinal Bertone went again in Cuba, to present, in his new capacity as Archbishop of Genoa, the two new priests that had been sent from the archdiocese as missionaries fidei donum.

“I was also received by the Commander Fidel Castro, in the very last day of my visit. The talk was very long, about a couple of hours, and dealt with many social and educational issues, for instance values and disvalues of youth,” told Cardinal Bertone.

Then as the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Bertone travelled to Cuba in 2008 to mark the 10th anniversary of St. John Paul II’s historic visit to the island.

“I was in Havana, Santa Clara, Santiago de Cuba, Guantanamo, and Penalver. I also held a conference at La Habana State University on ‘culture and the ethical foundation of human living,” and a speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to Cuba.”

Cardinal Bertone was also the first foreign top official to meet with Raul Castro after he had succeeded his brother Fidel.

In 2012, Cardinal Bertone accompanied Benedict XVI on his visit to Cuba, where they met with national authorities as well with Fidel.

“Fidel Castro was received in the Apostolic Nunciature’s residence and asked Benedict XVI to send him some of his books, which Benedict did,” the cardinal recounted.

He also reminded that “like Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI condemned the trade embargo, and hoped that unilateral points of view would be abandoned in order to think of the common interest of the Cuban people.”

Cardinal Bertone stressed that “the Holy See had already remarked on these issues in the audience the Pope gave in the Vatican to then-U.S. president George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in 2008.”

Cardinal Bertone’s most recent trip to Cuba took place Dec. 4-12, 2014,  a few days before the announcement of the restoration of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the U.S.

The trip had a twofold agenda. On the ecclesial side, Cardinal Bertone dedicated a new shrine in Santa Clara to the Virgen del Cobre, and met with Archbishop Dionisio Garcia Ibanez of Santiago de Cuba and  Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino of San Cristobal de la Habana.

The civil program was noteworthy: Cardinal Bertone met with Caridad Diego Bello, head of the Office for Religious Affairs of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist party, on Dec. 5. He also met for a working meal with Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, Cuba's foreign minister: “We exchanged information and opinions on current issues,” recounted Cardinal Bertone.

Tags: Vatican diplomacy, Pope in Cuba

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