This is not my usual blog post. The truth is that I’m having a difficult time not reacting to news reports on Pope Francis’ historic visit to Cuba.
I hope to write something more personal later about how and what this Pope’s visit means to me as an exiled Cuban-American.
But for now, I want to point out five things that you will probably not hear explained or noted regarding #elPapaenCuba from the media—including the U.S. Catholic media, which has seemed unfortunately as focused on politics as non-religious, secular media outlets.
But I digress.
#1, You’ve seen the photos of Pope Francis meeting with 89-year-old Fidel Castro. Did you know that in addition to a copy of the encyclical Laudato Si and one of Evangelii gaudium, Pope Francis presented Fidel with a gift of two CDs of reflections, homilies and songs by Jesuit Father Armando Llorente.
Fr. Llorente, who died in 2010, was a former teacher and mentor of Fidel at Havana’s Catholic prep school, Belen College.
It is not a coincidence that the Pope of mercy chose this particular gift for Fidel. Prior to his death as an exile in Miami, Father Llorente publically asked for Fidel’s repentance and conversion.
#2, Pope Francis became today the first Pope to ever visit the city of Holguín, Cuba. I’ve been reading some bizarre speculations about why he stopped at this particular city.
For the Miami Herald, for example, the explanation for Pope Francis’ stop in Holguín could be that the city has two large churches and a faithful Catholic community—or more likely, “so the pontiff can scout Bishop Emilio Aranguren, one of several possible successors to Cuba’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega.”
Even CRUX—who touts itself as “covering all things Catholic” kept the Pope’s actions generic, noting how Pope Francis blessed “Cuba’s fourth-largest city from the Hill ofthe Cross, a pilgrimage site overlooking the city.”
But the Hill of the Cross is not just a pilgrimage site. A cross marks Holguín as the place where Christopher Columbus first touched land in 1492 on this side of the world, declaring, "Ésta es la tierra más hermosa que ojos humanos hayan visto jamás," this the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen.
I think it’s safe to say that Pope Francis, our first Pope from the Americas, is aware that Holguín is the place where the Gospel first arrived to our western hemisphere.
#3 One after another, media outlets have been contrasting for days Pope Francis and his meetings with the Castro brothers, with his failure to arrange a meeting with Cuban faithful labeled as “dissidents” by the state. Here’s one by the WashingtonPost.
Finally, today, the AP wire acknowledged what no one apparently wants to note about Cuba’s controlling police-state:
“Two well-known Cuban dissidents say the Vatican invited them to attend the pope's vespers service at the Cathedral of Havana but Cuban security agents detained them and temporarily held them so they could not go.”
#4 Weekly mass attendance. This is what media sources continually cite to describe Cuba as nominally Catholic. Sigh.
Seriously, why are we still pretending that any person in Cuba is allowed the freedom to worship her Catholic faith?
In truth, the heart of the Catholic Church in Cuba today rests with the laity who run a virtually underground church of over 2,600 “mission houses”—a movement hounded by the government.
This is why Pope Francis pointed out:
“I know the efforts and the sacrifices being made by the Church in Cuba to bring Christ’s word and presence to all, even in the most remote areas. Here I would mention especially the “mission houses” which, given the shortage of churches and priests, provide for many people a place for prayer, for listening to the word of God, for catechesis and community life. They are small signs of God’s presence in our neighborhoods and a daily aid in our effort to respond to the plea of the apostle Paul: “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (cf. Eph 4:1-3).
~Homily at Mass in Holguín, 21 September 2015
#5 We live in a world of sound bites that thrives on controversy—and division. I shouldn’t be surprised that Cubans are continually pitted one against the other: those who stayed after Fidel Castro took power versus those who left; Cubans on the island versus the ones in exile. Yet nothing is that simple. After all, "hope is a path made of memory and discernment."
Acknowledging a unity forged by our love for Our Lady of Charity, one that surpasses mere facts and statistics, Pope Francis dedicated his opening remarks at the Habana airport to everyone he will not meet during his time on the Caribbean island—and to all Cubans dispersed throughout the world.
Our Lady of Charity of el Cobre, patroness of Cuba… “has accompanied the history of the Cuban people, sustaining the hope which preserves people’s dignity in the most difficult situations and championing the promotion of all that gives dignity to the human person.”
~Welcome ceremony, 20 September 2015