Keeler observes a freer church Cardinal says Cuba loosening restrictions as visit by pope nears

January 03, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Cardinal William H. Keeler, returning to Baltimore last night after a four-day visit to Cuba, said he saw signs that the Communist regime is allowing the church to operate more freely in the weeks before the arrival of Pope Pope John Paul II.

Keeler traveled to Cuba with a Catholic Relief Services delegation that brought nearly $200,000 worth of badly needed antibiotics and vitamins.

Cuban church officials had complained that the government-controlled media were not allowing news of the papal visit to be published or broadcast, Keeler said.

"The official newspaper has only printed one small item on the visit," he said.

As a result, church volunteers have been going door-to-door, delivering fliers with papal visit news.

But recently, the government has been relenting, he said.

On Christmas Day, which was celebrated as a holiday in Cuba for the first time since 1969, Pope John Paul's Christmas message was aired on Cuban television, along with images of the pope.

"The local people said it was the first time" a papal message had been broadcast, Keeler said in a news conference in the portico of the Basilica of the Assumption.

Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana may be permitted to deliver a televised message about the papal visit next week to Catholics in Cuba, said Keeler.

He said many people told him there was a sense of disbelief that Pope John Paul's visit wouldactually happen.

But then the pope's Christmas message aired, an event many had considered unthinkable. "Then they began to say, 'He really is coming,' " Keeler said.

Keeler visited Cuba at the invitation of Ortega, who came to Baltimore in October.

Keeler cannot go to Cuba during the Jan. 21-to-25 papal trip because he will be representing Pope John Paul at a church meeting in the Philippines.

Keeler said he found that the church in Cuba is experiencing a rebirth as excitement builds for Pope John Paul's visit.

He said he was struck by the crowds who attended the two public New Year's Masses he celebrated, one at midnight in the western city of Pinar del Rio, and the other at San Cristobal Cathedral in Havana.

"Every possible space in both of the churches was filled, at least as far as I could see," Keeler said. "In a sense, the [papal] visit has already begun to take place, in the excitement you see among the people," he said.

Kenneth F. Hackett, the CRS executive director, who accompanied Keeler on this trip, said that he has visited Cuba three times in the past four years and that he senses a definite shift in the mood of the people.

'What a change'

"It struck me what a change had taken place, particularly over the last year," Hackett said. "People are exuberant. They are hopeful. They are engaged. They sense that this is a special moment for their country."

In the years since the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, the fortunes of the Catholic Church went into decline as foreign priests were expelled and church membership dropped.

But relations between the church and the government have thawed in recent years since the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991. The 1991 Congress of Cuba's Communist Party voted to allow Christians and other people of faith to become party members. The next year, the constitutional status of the regime was changed from atheist to secular.

'Warming of relations'

Since then, "there has been a gradual warming of relations, you might say, between the population of Cuba and the church," Keeler said. With the change from official atheism to a secular state, "people felt freer to come to church."

Keeler said he saw the possibility that the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba could be eased gradually if the government continues to grant more civil liberties.

His position, he said, echoes that of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, of which Keeler was president in the early 1990s.

"One would hope that the government in Cuba would take the kinds of steps with respect to human rights, particularly those covering the freedom of religion, that could indeed lead to a lifting of the embargo, perhaps by steps," he said.

"As the Cuban government takes certain steps, we could take certain steps."

Pub Date: 1/03/98

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