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The Pope’s Mission Of Hope

3 minute read
Johanna Mcgeary

A giant turquoise-and-pink Jesus Christ alongside a black mural of Che Guevara. Fidel Castro’s hand gently guiding Pope John Paul II’s shuffling steps. Symbols of accord amid substantive disagreement. The pastoral and the political came together in Cuba last week just the way the missionary of Christian faith and the apostle of communism had planned. But as the two pursued their own agendas, each had to be disappointed that the historic visit intended as a public relations coup was upstaged in the U.S. by the Clinton sex scandal.

As the visibly frail but determined John Paul II traveled the length of the island to conduct four outdoor Masses, he attracted a mix of Catholic believers eager for a papal blessing and party faithful curious to see a real, live Pope. In public homilies, his aim was to stimulate new, even revolutionary ideas within Castro’s closed society. Yet his message, though close to his heart, was only covertly political, chiding Cuba’s lapsed family values harder than its lack of human rights, calling more for Catholic education than confrontation with the regime. Speaking fervently on issues that are of particular relevance to Cubans, the Pope came down hard on abortion, divorce, premarital sex–all common practices there. When he openly criticized both the U.S. embargo and communist ideology, he did so in equally muted terms.

For his part, Castro skillfully extended his blessing over the visit, basking in the reflected glow of legitimacy, hoping to blunt any strong statements on human liberties with a display of openness and tolerance. He ensured that big crowds would greet John Paul by giving workers time off. He identified himself with the Pope’s views on hunger, poverty and social justice. And he pressed Cubans to consider the visit primarily a show of support. “We’re not here because he is the Pope,” said Aimee Vaillant, a 26-year-old Havana nurse, “but because his visit is an honor to Cuba.”

On Sunday, after a grand-scale Havana Mass, the Pope will go home, the picture of Jesus will come down and little will have visibly changed. Cubans often seemed more respectful of the man than moved by his words. The Vatican said Castro agreed to “consider” freeing some political prisoners as the Pope has asked, but there is little sign yet of tangible concessions to requests for more priests, parochial schools or media access. What impact the Pope has on this aging revolution will mainly be measured in human hearts, where any real challenge to the Cuban system will have to begin.

–Reported by Greg Burke/Santa Clara and Tammerlin Drummond and Aixa M. Pascual/Havana

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