The Vatican’s statement on Friday that Pope Francis is “considering” a visit to Cuba when he is in North America in the fall has brought new attention to the special relationship between the island nation and the Catholic leader. The Pope has been credited with encouraging the recent signs of rapprochement between the United States and Cuba, something his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, also spoke in favor of during a 2012 trip to Cuba.
Though Cuba has historic ties to the Catholic religion, that special relationship is really only two decades old: It was around 1995 that Fidel Castro began working on what ended up being Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Cuba.
The anti-religion stance of strict Marxism had kept Cubans away from religion for decades and the crumbling of the Soviet Union only led Cuba to dig in, with hopes of proving the ideology’s endurance. At the same time, however, that period of enforcement was one of economic hardship, perhaps contributing to a rise in interest in both spiritual help and religious charity. “In 1991 Castro rescinded the ban against Christians’ joining the Communist Party,” writer Johanna McGeary explained, “and in 1992 he declared Cuba a secular, not an atheist, state.”
That change had been a long time coming:
Castro’s goals in eventually inviting the Pope for the 1998 visit were complex, and the results at first seemed modest. Large crowds had turned out to see John Paul II but no major news was made by either side. (Another contributing factor in the lack of news made by the visit: that was the same week President Clinton denied having sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky.) But today, many years later, it’s clear that the papal visit of 1998 did change something. It restarted a relationship between Cuba and the Vatican — a relationship that just might get another chapter very soon.
Read the full story, here in the TIME Vault: Clash of Faiths