By Miguel A. Brettos
The author, a historian, is a senior scholar emeritus, Smithsonian Institution. A Pedro Pan exile, he lives in Miami. firstname.lastname@example.org
The Holy Father asks for our prayers for his trip to Mexico and Cuba. He has mine. He is also entitled to the benefit of the doubt. Until he comes and goes, we will not know what his visit has amounted to–if anything—as far as Cuba is concerned.
This visit has been called “pastoral.” Its political implications are, however, profound. The moral ones are awesome.
In a practical sense, how the Pope conducts himself will say much about how the Church is placing its bets on Cuba’s foreseeable future. If the Pope carried on as if he was visiting a holy shrine in Switzerland instead one of the longest lived tyrannies on Earth, the message will be lamentably and dishearteningly clear.
The Cuban Church faces a painful choice. Preserving and expanding a material and sacramental presence on the island is critical. Such are the “spaces” cardinal Ortega often refers to: less harassment, more priests, more masses, more processions and more meals for the needy. These are worthwhile, indeed, essential objectives.
But being true to its deepest calling is just as important to the Church, which must speak with a prophetic voice and exercise what the Church itself has called a “preferential option” for the poor and oppressed. The Church, by her own admission, has a moral obligation to acknowledge and alleviate the suffering of the poor and oppressed—none more so than the Cuban people.
No one should seriously expect the Church to take the leadership in bringing about regime change in Cuba. (To those who claim that is not the Church’s métier I respectfully remind that that is precisely what John Paul II did in Poland). Cuba is not Poland, however, Benedict is no John Paul, and Cardinal Ortega is not the brave Cardinal Stefan Wyszinski, a perennial thorn on the side of the Polish Communist regime.
The John Paul that confronted the Polish Communists, empowering the forces that in the end brought the entire evil empire to its knees, was in a unique position. A man at the peak of his powers and a patriotic Pole, he knew—all Eastern Europeans did—that Communism was rubbish. It was Russia imposing itself on Poland once again under a new and perverse disguise that threatened both nationality and the faith. When John Paul II spoke to power in his own country, he stood firmly on a thousand years of Catholic Polish history.
A comparable situation would have existed had Monsignor Pedro Meurice, the late, intrepid Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, been elected Pope John Paul III and Father Jose Conrado had become his Cardinal Wyszinski in charge of Cuba. That would have confronted Castroism with a deadly peril. Nobody, not even Fidel, could bamboozle Pope Meurice or Cardinal Jose Conrado. But the comparison ends there. They would not have been supported by the Polish millennium of fidelity to the Church. They would have stood instead on a rickety legacy of syncretism, secularism, and the complicit relationship that many Cubans have to the Castros’ tragic revolution. Remember, when push came to shove around 1960, most Cubans followed Castro, not Christ. In fact, many got the two confused.
Remember, if you can—I do and so does Cardinal Ortega-- the frenzied cheering crowds that endorsed Cuba over to Fidel Castro half a century ago. Unlike Communism in Poland, Castroism was implanted in Cuba by the Cubans themselves. The Church opposed it and was almost wiped out. For the leadership of the Cuban Church to feel weak and vulnerable is understandably ingrained as the residue of that experience. Cuba has changed fundamentally, though. The time has come to look to the future, not the past, with faith that, in Cuba, the past has no future.
John Paul II’s message to the Cubans in 1998 went to the crux of the matter. There was not much he could do then but he told the Cuban people and their bishops exactly what they needed to hear in order to bring about change: “Do not be afraid.” On the whole, however, they have remained as terrified as ever where it counts but some have not. It would be wrong for the pontiff to ignore precisely those who heeded the message of his predecessor and given courageous testimony—in some cases from a committed Catholic position--at great personal risk.
It would be presumptuous for me or anyone to tell the Pope what to say or do. I pray, however that the Holy Spirit will illumine his wits and strengthen his resolve to do what is best for the Church and for Cuba and that his visit will bring that long suffering country the best one can hope for. Pope John Paul II asked the Cubans not to be afraid. It is only fair to ask Benedict XVI to act in consequence. Most Holy Father: do not be afraid.