Catholicism vs. Communism
Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Cuba with bring Christ to the communist island nation . . .
by Judy Roberts
Cuban-born Legates Miguel Sosa and Mario Murgado left their homeland as children, but neither has forgotten his people — and both are hoping the upcoming papal visit will strengthen the faith of the island nation’s citizens.
Pope Benedict XVI’s March 26-28 visit is part of a trip that will begin in Mexico. His stop in Cuba coincides with the jubilee year honoring the country’s patroness, Our Lady of Charity. In 1612, three men who had been praying for Mary’s protection during a storm at sea were saved when they miraculously discovered a statue of Our Lady in the water. The Pope’s schedule will include open-air Masses in Santiago and Havana, a private visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in Santiago, and meetings with Cuban president Raul Castro and the country’s bishops.
Sosa, a member of Legatus’ Miami Chapter, departed Cuba with his parents and sister in 1966 when he was just seven years old. Even though the first-ever papal visit to Cuba by Blessed John Paul II in 1998 did not spark the kind of rapid change the Pope’s 1979 pilgrimage to Poland did, Sosa said it had a long-term effect that can be seen today.
The changes “were very, very slow in the beginning, and it took many years afterwards for the influences of the Church to be noticed in Cuba,” he said. “But then over the last three to four years, [the Church] has really become, I would say, the most influential force in Cuba today — other than, obviously, the government.”
Such change has occurred quietly as the Church has gone about its business of helping people without calling attention to itself, said Sosa, senior vice president of investments for Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith in Miami.
“By its own admission, the government has not been able to provide everything people need, so the Church, by virtue of its quiet missions throughout all the islands, has been able to support certain needs that otherwise would go completely unmet.”
Sosa said he hopes the upcoming papal visit will bolster these works and inspire support for them — as well as help the Cuban people discover through the Church less violent means of political change. “We all seem to believe that a good fight ends up in something good, but that’s not always the case,” he said. “Pope Benedict can help people find change without having to fight.”
Murgado, also a member of Legatus’ Miami Chapter, came to the United States in 1966, five days short of his fourth birthday. He believes that John Paul’s visit to Cuba 14 years ago inspired people to have faith and hope, gave the Church a chance to re-ignite, and forced the Cuban regime to accept the Pope’s presence in a public light. Pope Benedict’s visit, he said, will be a chance to continue what John Paul started and for the Church to say to the Cuban people, “We haven’t forgotten you.”
Springtime of faith
Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who has traveled to Cuba more than a dozen times in the last 15 years and whose archdiocese of 1.3 million includes a huge Cuban population, agrees that the Church has gained more “space” since John Paul’s historic visit. He expects the upcoming papal visit to have a comparable outcome.
“Of course, there are still limitations placed on the Church by the government — and the Church itself is limited by her own poverty. But just as the visit of John Paul II brought new vigor to the Church in Cuba, Pope Benedict’s visit should have a similar effect, and it will build upon what John Paul II initiated.”
Archbishop Wenski, who will lead a group of about 500 pilgrims — most of them Cubans — to see Pope Benedict, said he recently spoke with a young religious sister who told him that when John Paul visited Cuba in 1998, she was “still an ‘atheist’ — or at least not baptized. She discovered her faith and her vocation thanks to that visit.”
Last year, Archbishop Wenski said, some four million people are believed to have seen the statue of Our Lady of Charity during its pilgrimage throughout Cuba, bringing the nation what has been called a “springtime of faith.”
Despite the Church’s longtime presence in Cuba, the country is still mission territory, said Catholic theologian George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.
“The question is: How is the Gospel best proclaimed and proposed in mission territory?” Weigel said. “A forthright presentation of Christian faith through homiletics and catechetics is important, but so is demonstrating in parishes and small Christian communities that the symphony of Catholic truth also leads to a more human, noble way of life — one in which the dignity of every human person is respected and freedom is lived in charity and service.”
Indeed, Archbishop Wenski said, during the 1960s, a strong anti-Catholic, anti-clerical repression by the communists was designed to create apostates rather than martyrs. Those who practiced their faith lost jobs and saw their children harassed in schools and denied advancement to universities. “Many people just stopped their religious observance rather than suffer reprisals,” the archbishop said. Others, like Sosa and Murgado, left the country.
Among Cuban Catholics in his archdiocese, Archbishop Wenski said, there are strong feelings on both sides regarding the 50-yearold U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. For many, he said, it remains a symbol of resistance, even though the embargo has not realized its goal of regime change.
Murgado, who owns the Miami-based Brickell Motors dealership, said he believes the trade sanctions should remain in full force, but Sosa is torn. “It’s a tug of war for me to go one way or another on that one,” he said, adding that older Cubans tend to support keeping the embargo because they remember the sacrifices they endured while Fidel Castro was taking power. “My generation and the generation to follow are a little bit less remembering of those sacrifices, even though we lived them through our parents. But it’s one thing to listen and another to actually endure it.”
When John Paul visited the island in 1998, he spoke against the embargo, which was not surprising, Weigel said, given the Holy See’s policy of opposing all economic boycotts. Weigel said his own conviction is that the embargo should be used as an instrument of leverage in getting the regime to free political prisoners, cease hassling certain groups or legalize independent trade unions.
Archbishop Wenski said he supports the Cuban bishops, who have consistently called for lifting the embargo. “It is a very dull instrument — it punishes the innocent more than the ‘guilty,’ that is, the party officials. If the embargo is lifted, all of Cuban society can potentially benefit, and that of course includes the Church.”
Judy Roberts is Legatus magazine’s staff writer.