For Cubans, the Pope’s visit brought hope – but will it last?
HAVANA, Cuba, Oct. 9, 2015–After Pope Francis’ visit as a “missionary of
mercy,” Cuba is now in a prime moment to move forward in its
relationship with the Church and work for the common good, said a
representative of an aid group that works in the country.
“What he brought them above all was his message of the ‘logic of love’
of Jesus – a love of selfless service to our fellow men, a love that is
capable of transforming hearts with a glance of mercy, a love that is
active, goes out and builds bridges, a love that is revealed in a
special way in family life,” said Ulrich Kny, head of the Latin American
section for Aid to the Church In Need.
Kny is responsible for the Germany-based international Catholic
charity’s projects in Cuba. He was in Cuba for the Sept. 19-22 papal visit.
Kny recounted that the Pope had exhorted Cubans to “live the revolution
of tenderness like Mary, the Mother of Mercy.” The pontiff also
encouraged Cubans to establish friendships that seek the common good
despite their differences.
The Pope’s success in mediating closer diplomatic relations between the
U.S. and Cuba had already generated enthusiasm among Cubans, Kny told
CNA Oct. 6.
“For most Cubans he had given new hope of an imminent end to the U.S.
economic embargo. Consequently, as soon as he arrived in Havana, he was
jubilantly welcomed by tens of thousands of flag-waving Cubans.”
Despite the small percentage of active Catholics in Cuba, the papal
visit dominated media coverage. Cuban state media televised live
broadcasts of papal events and documentaries about the Pope.
Kny believes the Pope’s “gestures of openness, warm-heartedness and
humanity” touched the hearts of all Cubans. He cited the Pope’s manner
of approaching people and giving total attention to those who met him
Despite the difficulties facing the Church in Cuba, the Church’s efforts
to promote the well-being of the Cuban people is being recognized by the
government, Kny said. “More and more of her activities are at least
“The Church in Cuba has learned over decades to survive in an atheist
environment. She has now emerged from the catacombs and – despite all
the opposition and difficulties – has become an active force in society
and has earned for herself great respect in all levels of Cuban society.
The Church in Cuba can today offer the universal Church her own
experience in dialogue with a society that for the most part has no
knowledge of God.”
Kny has been particularly impressed by the creativity of the bishops,
priests, religious and laity who are able to “slowly but steadily expand
the limited room for maneuver allowed them in their work of evangelization.”
The visit of Benedict XVI in 2012 brought the re-establishment of Good
Friday as a public holiday, but did not yield much substance improvement
in the government’s stance toward the Church. Kny hopes that Pope
Francis’ visit will mean the Church “will really be granted more room to
The Cuban government officially professes to respect religious freedom,
but in practice the Catholic Church is still “very far from a normal
pastoral situation,” according to Kny. The Church must seek official
permission for all events or celebrations outside church walls, a
difficult process that is “fraught with chicanery.”
Ahead of the papal visit, organizers had to wait until the last minute
for official permission for the preparatory program for the Pope’s
meeting with young people in Havana. Many dioceses had to fight for
enough places on planes and trains for pilgrims who wanted to travel to
the three papal Masses.
Other major problems include insufficient access to communications media
and the lack of permission to import vehicles for pastoral work. Church
construction also faces large obstacles.
With few exceptions, “the Catholic Church is again and again not granted
permission to build new churches, whereas Protestant groups and sects
such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been allowed to build more and more
temples in recent years.”
“Yet despite all the difficulties, it is noticeable that the Catholic
Church is becoming an ever more important player within Cuban society,”
He encouraged prayers for Cuba and efforts to strengthen support for the
Church so that she can overcome financial obstacles and reach her full
potential for evangelization. This will help the Church give Cubans the
opportunity for “a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.”
He said the time after Pope Francis’ visit is a “very favorable moment”
for this support.
At the same time, he cautioned, the Church in Cuba lacks the human,
material and logistical resources to strengthen and deepen the faith of
the Cuban people, decades after the communist revolution.
“The hunger for God is enormous, yet many Cubans have only a very
sketchy knowledge of their faith. The task of deepening this knowledge,
by means of an extensive catechetical program and through the experience
of a personal encounter with the living Christ, represents an enormous
challenge for the Church in Cuba and one for which she simply has too
few pastoral workers available,” Kny told CNA.
Young Catholic laity have few prospects and tend to emigrate, meaning it
is very hard to guarantee continuity in lay formation, he said. The
failures of Cuba’s transportation system and high fuel costs also limit
Catholic gatherings. Church vehicles are antiquated and in constant need
of repair, which hinders the capacity for pastoral visits.
While the Church is reacquiring properties confiscated after the
communist revolution, these require costly restoration work when
building materials and money are in short supply, he continued. Securing
official permissions for repair work is again a drawn-out process.
For Kny, the greater problems for Cuba include “moral deformation.” Not
only is abortion widely practiced, but there is a general absence of
Christian values from education, which is run by a state monopoly.
The country is continuing to struggle economically since the collapse of
the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main economic partner. Cubans also face drastic
food rationing. People are often dependent on financial support from
relatives abroad, they buy stolen goods on the black market, or even
feel forced to steal state property.
They describe this practice using the Spanish word “resolver,” which
roughly means “to find a solution.”
“This kind of basic attitude, which is of course contrary to Christian
moral values, is one that no one can blame the Cubans for, given the
current situation,” Kny said. “Yet for the future it harbors great
dangers, for it is another thing that contributes ultimately to a
thoroughly corrupt society.”
Recent changes in U.S.-Cuban relations have helped Cubans strengthen
their connections with relatives in the U.S. Kny reported that many
people gather at newly established internet hotspots to surf on the
internet or to chat and e-mail their U.S. relatives.
“Most of these gadgets and their expensive access codes are paid for by
their relatives abroad,” he said.
The Cuban government has long been controversial because of its actions
against its own people, especially political dissidents. Catholic human
rights advocates and others are frequently detained.
However, Kny hoped for a way forward.
“For all the justified criticism of the human rights abuses and the
restriction of the freedoms of the Cuban people, we should avoid any
kind of polemics and confrontation,” he recommended. “The Cuban
leadership has realized, thank God, that the Church is not interested in
political opposition but in the welfare of the Cuban people.”
He said the Church does not restrict herself to denouncing injustice.
Rather, she seeks dialogue with the government and with society while
“doing everything possible to introduce Christian values and convey to
the Cuban people a hope that unites and that offers life and future.”
“I believe that the Church in Cuba is on the right path here.”
The Aid to the Church in Need website is www.churchinneed.org. (CNA)
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