Il papa, el comandante to meet Summit: Pope John Paul II and Cuban President Fidel Castro are scheduled to meet in the twilight of their reigns, after sparring from a distance for nearly 20 years.

Sun Journal


VATICAN CITY -- They are both septuagenarians in the autumn of their reigns, Pope John Paul II and Cuban President Fidel Castro. One helped topple communism in his native Poland, the other has vowed to redeem it in Cuba. Now, after nearly two decades of studiously avoiding and sometimes criticizing each other, il papa and el comandante are carefully edging toward a summit in Rome this week.

Vatican officials say they are not interested in a mere photo opportunity. They say they are seeking what they call "substantial concessions" from the Cuban government: Havana must allow the local Roman Catholic Church a greater role in education, legally recognize its agencies, give it a fair voice in the government-controlled media and relax visa restrictions on foreign missionary priests and nuns.

If it all works out, the 70-year-old Castro will get an audience with the 76-year-old pope and the pontiff will then make his first visit to Cuba, probably by October of next year, Vatican officials say. Diplomatic gears are clearly turning in the right direction, with one church official saying the Vatican audience is "almost set" while the papal trip to Cuba is "less certain, needing more work."

Still under discussion for the Cuba trip: John Paul wants open-air Masses with unlimited attendance and what church officials call "standard" media dissemination of his program. Cuba wants mostly indoor Masses and a low-key schedule.

Trip depends on health

Much, of course, depends on the pontiff's health. He underwent an appendectomy last month, has appeared rundown in recent months and is widely believed to suffer from Parkinson's disease. Castro, though also said to suffer from various ailments, seems healthy in comparison.

But the pope has kept Cuba high on his travel priority list -- after Bosnia and Lebanon, say Vatican experts -- as the only Latin American nation besides Guyana and Suriname that he has not visited in his 18-year reign.

Havana took the first steps in the process of inviting the pontiff to Cuba in mid-1989, but then dropped the matter without a public explanation as communism collapsed in Eastern Europe and Cuba went into an economic tailspin.

Cuba believes it would benefit from a papal visit, which would focus world attention on John Paul's longtime criticism of the U.S. trade embargo and add to Castro's international standing.

But the pope has also been hard on communism. He pushed the church to undermine Communist governments throughout Eastern Europe and lashed out at the leftist Sandinista government when he visited Nicaragua in 1983.

"The church in Cuba has quietly grown strong in the past years, and a trip here by the pope would be a public affirmation of that power," said one Havana parish priest in a telephone interview. The church counts more than 4 million Roman Catholics on the island, though the number of active members is far smaller.

A papal visit would give a significant morale boost to a church that one Vatican official described as "perhaps on the cautious side after years of pressures" under the ruling Cuban Communist Party.

"Our mission is evangelical, and we are not dissidents or agents of political change," said the priest in Havana. "But we are the biggest nongovernment institution here, and should get more freedom for our labors."

Quiet Cuban missions

Working quietly, afraid the government will close them if there's too much publicity, Cuban churches for some time have been running welfare programs, such as food and medical dispensaries, that are common around the world but unusual under a government that boasts it provides basic services for all.

Church officials are also considering starting loan funds and accounting classes for small-scale enterprises, and some have begun work on human rights issues.

Castro is expected to arrive here today for the World Food Summit that is sponsored by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization -- thus the opportunity for meeting the pope.

The pope rarely refuses to grant audiences to heads of state, but the Vatican says it wants to ensure Castro doesn't exploit the meeting for his own purposes and that the meeting does not anger Catholic Cuban exiles.

Cuba's Communist Party, once officially atheist, adopted a conciliatory attitude toward the local church in the mid-1980s despite the church's insistent calls for talks on national reconciliation and its objections to human rights violations on the island.

Church work is not a problem for the revolution as long as it promotes "love for others, selflessness, the protection of the weakest the unity of the family, social justice, moral and civic virtues, love and sacrifice for the fatherland," a recent party document said.

Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana, appointed by John Paul, welcomed the document. "If things keep going as they are now, there could be a real state-church dialogue," he told the Spanish newspaper El Pais.

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