Cuba: When Francis met Fidel

Cuba: When Francis met Fidel

On Sunday, after presiding over a mass in Havana’s Revolution Square, Pope Francis met former Cuban president Fidel Castro. The pontiff went to visit the ailing 89-year-old Cuban revolutionary leader at his home. Two men: one who shaped Cuba for the last half of the 20th century and one who looks set to shape global Catholicism in the infancy of this century. By RUSSELL POLLITT.

The visit shows just how things evolve: fifty-four years ago, in 1961, Castro expelled the Jesuits from Cuba – Pope Francis is himself a Jesuit. Moments before meeting Castro the pope told the Cuban people not to serve an ideology but one another – delivering a jab to the communist system Castro implemented.

Pope Francis presented former Cuban president Fidel Castro with a gift: two CDs and a book with the sermons and songs of Father Armando Llorente. Llorente was Castro’s school teacher and mentor at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School. Before his death, Llorente publicly called on Castro to convert and repent. In 2007 the priest, exiled in Miami, Florida, said he was willing to go to Cuba immediately to hear Castro’s confession. The Spanish-born priest hoped he would be able to offer Castro absolution for his sins. He stressed the need for Castro to publicly ask for forgiveness because, he said, his sins were not only personal. In 1945 the priest had written in the school yearbook, “Fidel Castro, has the makings of a hero, the history of his motherland will have to speak about him.” Austen Ivereigh, author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, said he could not help but think the pope was sending Castro a message: come to terms with your past.

In 1958 Llorente, in disguise, was able to reach Castro and speak to him. Castro told Llorente that he had lost his faith. Llorente said to Castro: “Fidel, one thing is to lose your faith and another thing is to lose your dignity.” In 1961 Llorente was forced into exile in Miami; he died there in 2010 at the age of 91. Little did Llorente know that a few years later a pope would present his sermons to the man for whose conversion he longed.

The 40-minute meeting at the Castro residence was described as “informal and familiar” by the Vatican. Members of Castro’s extended family – children and grandchildren – were present. Castro presented the pontiff with a book about himself. The two men then proceeded to talk about “big issues” facing humanity and, specifically, the pope’s recent encyclical on the environment and the global economic system. The pope had a separate meeting with Fidel’s brother, Cuban President since 2008 Raul Castro, at the presidential palace later in the afternoon.

Since the pope’s historic mediation between Cuba and the US, Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro have held a personal meeting and reopened embassies in each other’s countries. The two leaders have agreed to work together to forge closer ties in areas such as trade, tourism, and telecommunications. Both of them have credited the pope with playing an essential part in their thawing relations. The first public sign of the slow opening of relations between Cuba and the US was at Nelson Mandela’s funeral service in Soweto. Castro and Obama greeted each other and shook hands; this became a big story in news platforms across the US. While the pope’s visit to Cuba and the US later this week is primarily a pastoral visit, analysts believe he will be using this time to try to build more bridges between these two countries. Pope Francis is the third pontiff to visit Cuba in recent years – his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI also travelled there.

Not everyone is happy with the state of affairs. American conservatives are angry with Obama for his Cuban initiative. Others accuse the pope of having Marxist leanings. The conservative Washington think tank the Heritage Foundation’s chief economist, Stephen Moore (a Catholic), believes there is a lot of scepticism among US Catholics about the pope: “I think this is a pope who clearly has some Marxist leanings. It’s unquestionable that he has a very vocal scepticism about capitalism and free enterprise and … I find that to be very troubling.” Conservative American radio host Rush Limbaugh dismissed the pope’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium as “pure Marxism” in 2013. When the pope visited Bolivia earlier this year President Evo Morales gave him a gift of what was termed a “communist crucifix.” This sparked further debate that Francis is a socialist sympathiser.

The pope has, on a number of occasions, critiqued “unfettered” capitalism and a “crude and naïve trust in those wielding economic power”. He said ‘trickle down economics’ was a theory that had, for the most part, failed. He warned of the cost to human beings when the market itself is ‘deified’. He has called for a bold cultural revolution in the way we live and work.

Does this make him a socialist sympathiser? He certainly does not think so. In an interview with Vatican analyst Andrea Tornielli in 2013 the pope was asked specifically about his economic views. Francis said “the Marxist ideology is wrong”, and that he found it “strange” that people would make such accusations against him. In an interview with the Roman daily II Messaggero in 2014, the pope said concern for the poor was at the heart of the Gospel and church tradition, rather than an invention of communism. In Bolivia, the pope reiterated these sentiments when he said: “When I talk about this (the deification of the market), some people think the pope is a communist, they don’t realise that love for the poor is at the centre of the Gospel.” In fact, if one analyses Francis carefully, one will soon notice that he critiques both capitalism and socialism. He never calls for another system to be put in place but calls for a greater sensitivity to the growing number of poor who are being left out of the global economy. He asked Cubans to look after those who were on the margins too – a sign that he is certainly does not think that socialism has eradicated the problem of poverty.

Something else was striking in Cuba. On Sunday night, speaking at the cathedral in Havana and later to young people at a cultural centre, Francis put aside his prepared text and gave what resembled a manifesto outlining his vision of the global Catholic community. “When a religion closes itself up in its ‘own little convent’ it loses the best of itself … When I have my ideology, my way of thinking and you have yours, I close myself within that ‘little convent’ of ideology,” he said. He went on to say that “(We should) encourage ourselves to speak about what we have in common and, afterwards, we can speak about the things about which we think differently.” Francis also re-emphasised his call for mercy and for a poor church. He told priests: “You have one sole function: The mercy of God.”

In response to a young Cuban man who told the pope that he and his peers are united in the “hope of profound change for Cuba, where our country will be a home that welcomes all its young people no matter how they think and wherever they are”, the pope said: “Sometimes we’re very closed. We put ourselves into our own little world and we say that’s the way I want it or nothing at all.” Earlier that day, making what is considered to be a pointed remark, the pope said: “Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people.” Many of the socialist ideologues would have heard this – loudly and clearly.

The pope’s remarks about ideology, dialogue, openness, and diversity are important for the church, but also significant for Cuba. For decades the leadership has silenced dissent against government policies and locked up dissidents. There were reports that some dissidents critical of government – who were on their way to the papal mass in Havana to hand out leaflets – were arrested.

On Monday the pope left Havana and travelled to the city of Holguin. In Holguin he celebrated a second public mass in which he touched strikingly on the core of the Christian message. Speaking on “the call of Matthew”, the pope asked the crowds: “Do you believe it is possible that a tax collector can become a servant?” He went on to say: “Tax collectors were looked down upon and considered sinners; as such, they lived apart and were despised by others… For the people, they were traitors: they took away from their own to give to others.” He asked the crowds to turn with mercy to the sick, prisoners, the elderly, and families in difficulty. Francis spoke about change, alluding to personal moral conversion – referring specifically to Matthew. The pope quite clearly believes that these should all be at the heart of Christian life; however, one cannot but help hear the political messages too.

Cuba has had a turbulent history. Sentiments like ‘reconciliation’ or ‘mercy’ or ‘turning enemies into friends’ could rarely be heard in public discourse. Cuba is a country beset with political divisions – between the government and the US, between Cubans who have remained and those who have fled or are in exile, and between the pro- and anti-Castro voices in the country. Context is important; in this setting Francis’s words would have been striking for many. ‘Change’ seems to be the watchword in Cuba, everyone is waiting for the island’s isolation and stagnation to end, and hence the overtures in the pope’s message will not go unnoticed.

Like apartheid South Africa, religious leaders are often told to stay out of politics. It is true that they are not experts in public policy and that at times their solutions may not always be solutions. They also have to be careful not to alienate their own constituents because this could undercut their ability to bring people together. That said, there are times when, as Vatican analyst John Allen Jr says, “being pastoral is unavoidably a political exercise, because even the unadorned Christian message is often a challenge to status quos of every sort”.

Today the pope begins a five-day visit to the US. He will address a joint sitting of the House and the Senate in Washington DC and the General Assembly of the United Nations. He will also attend a World Meeting of Families – ahead of the Universal Synod of Bishops in Rome next month – in Philadelphia. Meeting Fidel and speaking in Cuba might have been a much easier task than that which awaits him in the US. The Catholic Church in the US is probably the most divided church in the world. Still, Francis seems to be able to get business done when he sets his mind to it. It will be fascinating to watch just how he negotiates the religious and political territory in the US. DM

Photo: A handout picture provided on 21 September 2015 by the Cuban state-run website ‘Cubadebate’ shows Pope Francis (L) and former President of Cuba Fidel Castro during their meeting at Castro’s residence in Havana, Cuba, 20 September 2015. Pope Francis had a busy day in Havana, as he held a mass before a crowd of thousands, met with historic Cuban leader Fidel Castro and addressed young people. EPA/ALEX CASTRO.


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