A revitalized church awaits pope's Cuba visit Religion: With Pope John Paul II yet to set foot on the Marxist-run island, the Roman Catholic Church has won some freedom to function in this once formally atheistic nation.

January 18, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HAVANA -- You could call it a papal pep rally.

Cardinal Jaime Ortega, archbishop of Havana, is firing up yet another crowd, building up enthusiasm for the imminent visit of Pope John Paul II.

"What a moment Cuba is living in!" Ortega, 61 and full of energy, tells more than 1,000 people, mostly old and infirm Roman Catholic Cubans at the Church of the Sacred Heart near Red Square in Havana.

"What a moment our church is living in!" he says. "It is a moment of God in our history."

The crowd erupts into rhythmic chanting and hand clapping.

"Juan Pablo, Segundo. Ya llego a Cuba!" -- meaning John Paul II has already arrived in Cuba.

There is a feeling of tremendous expectation as this Marxist-run, once formally atheistic island awaits the arrival of the pope Wednesday for a historic five-day visit.

Cuba's economy is still reeling from the collapse of its Soviet patrons in 1991, leaving widespread shortages of food, consumer goods and fuel.

"I have much faith. I have much faith in the pope," says Alejandro Guzman, a 27-year-old Catholic, as he trims meat at a bustling farmers' market in Havana. "Life here is very difficult. We need the blessing of the pope."

But the feeling among many observers of the Cuban Catholic Church, as well as members of the church itself, is that the objective of John Paul's visit has already been achieved. President Fidel Castro's Marxist-Leninist regime has granted considerable concessions to the Catholic Church since atheism

was ended as the country's formal policy.

In December, Castro decided to make Christmas Day a national holiday at least for one year, a practice that had been halted in 1969 so workers could produce a record sugar harvest. John Paul's Christmas message was printed on the front page of Granma, the Communist Party newspaper, and last week Ortega was allowed to deliver an unprecedented half-hour televised message on the papal visit.

The Catholic Church has carved a space for itself as an alternative, if moderate, voice in Cuban society. The pope's visit is likely to enhance that.

"I think the most lasting effect from the visit itself will be a higher profile for the churches, particularly the Catholic Church," says Shawn T. Malone, associate director of the Georgetown University Caribbean Project, who studies and writes on the Cuban church.

"No matter what happens, the Catholic Church has already made gains," he says. "Even if the visit were a failure or was uneventful, the church has already raised its profile, both on the island and internationally."

During his five-day visit, the pope will celebrate Masses in different parts of the country. He will see Castro on Thursday and his visit will culminate next Sunday with a Mass in Havana's Revolution Square.

Although the pope is a staunch anti-Communist, few expect the visit to have the impact of his trips to Poland in the 1970s and 1980s. Those trips were widely credited with helping to eventually dismantle the Communist regime. But Poland is 90 percent Catholic and the church has always maintained a strong institutional presence there. The opposite is true of this island and its population of about 11 million.

The church has greater freedom to operate than in the past. But leaders like Ortega won't push too much.

"They won't ask for more than is possible for the government to grant," says Enrique Lopez Oliva, a professor of the history of religion at the University of Havana.

Georgetown's Malone agreed. "The church, which a lot of people in the United States have a hard time understanding, is not fixated on Castro's demise," he said. "It will be there when Castro is gone. It is really looking to build a solid foundation for its work in the country into the next millennium."

The signs of growth are already there.

In 1989, 27,609 baptisms were performed in Cuba. By 1996, that number had risen to 75,000, according to the Archdiocese of Havana. During that same period, the number of Cubans passing the rite known as First Communion rose from 643 to 9,139, and Catholic weddings increased from 138 to 1,513.

The number of priests, brothers and nuns also is growing.

In all, there are 257 priests, 26 brothers and 520 nuns in Cuba. Shortly after his meeting with the pope in Rome in 1996, Castro allowed visas for 40 new priests and nuns. Late last year, he granted visas for 28 more priests and 29 nuns.

"I think that at this moment in Cuba, there is new life in the church, like nothing before in the history of Cuba," says Lopez.

The Catholic Church was never as strong in Cuba as in other Latin American countries. Before the Communist revolution that led to Castro's taking power in 1959, fewer than 10 percent of the population were active, and church membership consisted mainly of the wealthy, most of whom fled the country after Castro started nationalizing private industry and businesses. Many members of the clergy were foreigners and most of them were expelled or left on their own soon after the revolution.

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