TIME faith

What Happened the First Time a Pope Visited Cuba

Jan. 26, 1998
Cover Credit: GERARD RANCINAN The Jan. 26, 1998 cover of TIME

The list of papal visits to the island is a short one

When Pope Francis begins his visit to Cuba Saturday, he will become the third pope to visit the communist nation. He’ll encounter a country in a far different place than the one Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2012, or Pope John Paul II did on the first papal trip in 1998.

Back then, TIME dubbed John Paul’s meeting with Fidel Castro a “clash of faiths.” Indeed, that visit was one of the last gasps of the Cold War era. Though the Iron Curtain had long since fallen, Cuba remained set in its Marxist ways, with no official appetite for organized Western religion. But the island had begun to show signs of warming to religion–and the government seemed less eager to crack down. The pope’s visit to Cuba was, TIME explained, an attempt to move that dial:

A 100-year-old ideology that proposed a collective paradise of social justice and economic equality on earth will confront a 2,000-year-old belief in the eternal power of devotion to the divine and reverence for human dignity.

The Pope‘s goal is nothing less than the global establishment of a completely Christian alternative to the once alluring Marxist philosophies of this age. Yet even after communism imploded in virtually every other corner of the planet, Fidel Castro remains faithful, a true believer in a god that failed. “History will absolve me,” he proclaimed at the start of his revolution, and he believes it will absolve him still. John Paul II is equally certain that his religion will one day soon sweep away even this last vestige of godless communism.

In the American media, the trip was largely eclipsed by Bill Clinton’s burgeoning Monica Lewinsky scandal. But it has since come to be seen as a milestone in the opening up of relations between Cuba and the rest of the world—a process that Pope Francis’ visit will certainly continue.

Read more on Time.com: How the Vatican and Cuba Came Together

Read more from 1998, here in the TIME Vault: Clash of Faiths

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