Francis Travels to Cuba to Show Support for a Church Wanting to Broaden Its Reach
Francis Travels to Cuba to Show Support for a Church Wanting to Broaden
Its Reach / EFE-14ymedio, Sara Gomez Armas
Posted on September 21, 2015
EFE, Sara Gómez Armas, Havana, 18 September 2015 — Pope Francis is the
third pontiff to visits Cuba, a country where the Catholic Church has
assumed an important role as mediator with Raúl Castro’s administration,
but which still faces challenges as it tries gain more space and
institutional recognition on the Communist island.
Cuba is one of the few countries in the world that has been visited by
three consecutive popes: John Paul II in January 1998; Benedict XVI in
March 2012; and from Saturday to Tuesday, Jorge Bergoglio, the first
Latin American pontiff.
During his four days in Cuba, Pope Francis will visit Havana, where he
will celebrate Mass at the Plaza of the Revolution, and meet with Raúl
Castro. He will visit Holguín, a province that will receive a pope for
the first time, and will also visit Santiago de Cuba Province, where he
will visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, the country’s
The Pontiff will depart Santiago for Washington, the second part of his
visit to Cuba and the United States. These two countries restored ties
after 54 years of hostilities with Francis’ personal mediation, thus
giving a political and diplomatic dimension to this pastoral visit.
Accompanied by the catchphrase “Missionary of Mercy,” Francis is
travelling to a Cuba that is very different than the one John Paul II
encountered. That occasion was a historical milestone in the
rapprochement between the Church and State after decades of disputes and
tensions between the latter and the Castro Revolution.
Karol Wojt?a’s visit – during which he was accompanied by then-bishop
Jorge Bergoglio – marked a “before and after.” According to Father José
Félix Pérez, spokesperson for the Catholic Bishops Conference of Cuba,
John Paul II’s visit “gave public visibility and renewed energy” to the
Cuban Catholic Church.
Subsequently, a reformist Raúl Castro reinforced this rapprochement. In
power since 2008, Castro took the significant step of committing to the
release of political prisoners after his unprecedented dialogue with the
country’s Catholic hierarchy in 2010. Father Pérez added: “We now have
better communication. It’s more fluid. We share a very positive, cordial
spirit.” This assessment is shared by the ruling Communist Party of
Cuba. According to a recent interview given to EFE by Caridad Diego,
Director of the Religious Affairs Office of the Communist Party, the
latter’s relations with the Church are at a “good level.”
As part of this détente, the State has returned churches, buildings, and
land that was property of the Catholic Church which had been
expropriated by the Revolution. Furthermore, the Cuban government has
for the first time since 1959 authorized the construction of two new
churches, one in Havana and the other in the western province of Pinar
del Río. Likewise, nuns are now being allowed to attend to the sick in
hospitals, and to senior citizens in a country facing the challenge of
an increasingly aging population.
Nevertheless, the Church is calling for more public spaces allowing it
direct contact with the people, such as in the area of education. It is
also asking for more access to the media, which on the island are owned
by the State.
In the area of education, the Church has been developing since the end
of the nineties ninety adult education courses. Since 2012, roughly 500
Havana entrepreneurs have benefited from the “CubaEmprende”
(“EntrepreneurialCuba”) program, which aims to train the self-employed
how to run their businesses.
The growth in the island’s public sector is one of the measures
implemented by Raúl Castro in his reforms aimed at “updating” the
island’s Socialist model. The Catholic Church supports this plan,
although on occasion it has criticized the slow pace of change.
When taking into account the numbers of baptisms, it is estimated that
60% of Cuba’s population (the island has 11.1 million inhabitants) is
Catholic. However, the percentage of Cubans who attend Sunday mass drops
to two percent. There are 305 parishes, 357 priests, 776 consecrated
religious, 585 women and 191 men, belonging to 96 communities. These
numbers are still modest when compared to the presence of the Catholic
Church prior to 1959. After the Revolution came to power, 131 priests
were expelled from Cuba, and almost 500 “left of their own free will.”
Still, religiosity on the island is distinguished by its syncretism with
religions such as Santería, which enjoys great popularity, and whose
adherents find no incompatibility with it and Catholicism.
Caridad Diego used the following example. “In Cuba, it is normal for a
person who was baptized into the Catholic Church to be initiated into
Santería, make animal sacrifices, perform Abakuá rituals, and on top of
that, be a Freemason as well.”
According to the data of the Office of Religious Affairs of the
Communist Party, there are 55 officially recognized and registered
Evangelical and Protestant denominations in Cuba.
Source: Francis Travels to Cuba to Show Support for a Church Wanting to
Broaden Its Reach / EFE-14ymedio, Sara Gomez Armas | Translating Cuba –