Cuban Catholics hope Pope Francis's visit will be a rock to build church on
Ahead of Pope Francis’s first visit to Cuba this weekend, expectations among the island’s faithful are soaring. Many seek greater progress in the government’s , some hope for a boost in Catholic congregations, a few lobby for political change while a handful pray for nothing less than miracles.
But far from Havana, in the country’s westernmost municipality of Sandino, the local priest Cirilo Castro has something far more practical on his mind: how to transform a rock in an empty field into the first new church in since the 1959 revolution.
In a sign of improved relations, the communist government has given permission for a new house of worship in this remote area, which was a place of exile for counterrevolutionaries after Fidel Castro took power.
The journey between Havana and the site of the new church takes almost four hours. The lack of development in the area is evident from the roadside football pitches, where children shoot at goals made from wooden sticks and pieces of rope, the widespread use of horse-drawn carts and the dependency on agricultural – tobacco, sugar cane and corn.
At Sandino, the proposed site of the church is currently marked only by a few wooden staves and a boulder, which will serve as a foundation stone. But Father Cirilo has raised $85,000 from the United States through a relationship with a parish in Tampa, Florida. Designs have been drawn up for a building that can seat a congregation of 180, and construction materials have been purchased. The communist authorities have even offered to provide excavating machinery to dig the foundations.
“I am very happy, but I feel a great sense of responsibility,” the priest said. “This is a historical development for the church and the country.”
Construction will begin later this year. First, however, Father Cirilo is busy preparing – like Catholics all over Cuba – for the arrival of Francis, who flies into Havana on Saturday afternoon.
The first pope from Latin America is certain to get a rapturous welcome, following the pivotal role he played in the dialogue between the Cuban president, Raúl Castro, and his US counterpart Barack Obama that led earlier this year to the for the first time since the revolution.
Francis’s visit – which will be followed by a trip to the United States – aims to reinforce that deal, but it is also intended to transform the growing political influence of the church in Cuba into stronger religious participation at the grass roots.
Catholic bishops say Francis will come as a “missionary”, whereas his predecessor Benedict XVI arrived in 2012 as a “pilgrim” and John Paul II came in 1998 as a “messenger”. In Havana and Santiago de Cuba, he will preach an evangelical message aimed beyond the Catholic faithful.
The nominally atheist state is helping. The authorities are coordinating transport for worshippers who want to attend the pope’s Sunday morning mass in Revolution Square, the plaza in the heart of the capital where Fidel Castro used to deliver fiery and lengthy ideological speeches
Father Cirilo said he met local cadres the previous day to make the arrangements for two buses that will take him and 90 of his parishioners to the capital. His desk was covered with plastic flags in the blue-red-and-white of Cuba and the yellow-and-white of the Vatican that will be handed out to followers so they can wave the symbols of state and church together.
The government also played a key role in preparing for visits by the previous two popes. But this time, observers say there is a greater sense of collaboration. Church leaders have been given more scope than before to spread the message of Francis’s visit.
Unthinkable in the past, Cardinal Jaime Ortega was interviewed on state television about political prisoners and Catholic youth groups have held nightly singing and dancing events at parks around Havana.
“There has been a process of change in the mentality of the government,” Bishop Jorge Serpa told the Guardian. “At times, the media was absolutely closed to the church. Now it is very open for us to spread the message of the pope’s arrival.”
Miguel de la Torre, a Cuban-American professor of Latino Studies, said the island has never been as fervently Catholic as other Latin American nations because the church was so closely allied to the Spanish crown during the country’s independence struggles. After Castro’s revolution, Christian belief was frowned upon because it was associated with the ousted elite. Many senior church leaders fled the country. Others were arrested, including Ortega who was imprisoned from 1966 to 1967.
María Jesús Miranda, an 87-year-old nun in Havana, recalled that many convents were closed. The church was never banned, but anyone who wanted to get ahead in the Communist party or the military knew it would be a black mark to attend mass. Believers suffered discrimination. “In the street, people used to curse us and even spit at us,” she remembered.
The big change came in 1998 with the visit of Pope John Paul II. After that, the authorities relaxed controls, Christmas and Good Friday were once again celebrated as national holidays, pastoral missions in churches and hospitals increased and church attendance temporarily surged.
Restrictions are still in place which prohibit the church from running schools and hospitals, and the country still has a relatively small number of priests.
But relations have steadily improved, as did the Vatican’s influence, culminating in last December’s deal with the US.
For anti-government activists and exiles in Miami, the relations are too cosy. Many were outraged two months ago when Cardinal Ortega asserted that Cuba no longer had political prisoners and that dissidents were more likely to be found in Florida than Cuba. They are also disappointed that the pope is during his visit.
Lázara Sediña, the leader of the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) – a dissident group whose white-clad members silently parade for greater civil liberties after church each Sunday – said the pope’s visit had only added to the pressure on activists. With several members under house arrest and another the victim of a police raid, she said the Catholic hierarchy’s close ties to the government had done little to promote the cause of human rights and democracy.
“For us, it doesn’t help. The repression only continues and there is no guarantee of freedom of expression,” she said.
Catholic leaders counter that more can be achieved through engaged diplomacy.
“The church does its work the way it has to be done rather than the way people want us to do it. We are not part of any political party or system. We are evangelists,” said Bishop Serpa, who is the Cuban head of the Caritas charity and the head of Catholic missions to Cuba’s prisons.
He can claim concrete results. . Although this was a bigger release than those before previous papal visits, some dissidents complained that no political prisoners were freed. The bishop countered that progress had to come in steps.
“It’s inevitable that the government places certain parameters on who can be pardoned,” he said. “Undoubtedly, you could think that we could consider other cases and other motives, but the most important thing is that people in prison do not lose faith that they may one day be free.”
Outside Miami, it is hard to find a critic of this approach. Andrew Hearn, an anthropologist at the University of Melbourne and author of a book on Cuban religion, said the church has acted intelligently by avoiding confrontation and gradually opening space for charity work and publication of Catholic magazines. “I suspect the pope will continue to pursue compromises and win concessions from the Cuban government rather than try to force its hand unilaterally,” he said.
Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, concurred: “The Vatican policy of constructive engagement has not only paid dividends in terms of greater freedom of worship but also in the historical renewal of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US,” he said. “Moreover, we can expect more frank talk from Francis on human rights and freedom of worship with Raúl Castro behind closed doors.”
Earlier this year, the Cuban president – who was educated alongside his brother at a Jesuit college before they became communists – said he was so impressed by the work of the church that he was considering a .
After being opposed for so many years, the two most dominant institutions on the island are now on trajectories that draw them closer.
Under Francis, the Vatican has adopted many of the anti-capitalist teachings of the Liberation Theology movement. Under Raúl Castro, Cuba has introduced modest market reforms and partially relaxed controls on travel and communications. Both are struggling to adapt their rigid hierarchies so they can be more relevant in a fast-changing world. Both are also under threat: the Cuban Communist party by the dominance of globalised capital and the Catholic church by the rise of evangelical movements. To some extent, they need one another.
Although the Vatican its deepening its influence among Cuba’s political leadership, it is still struggling to achieve similar results among the people. After five decades of restrictions on evangelical activities, Cuba has the smallest share of Catholics by far in Latin America with only 27% of the population declaring themselves believers of the faith, according to a recent Univision-Bendixen survey. Syncretic Santería beliefs remain strong on the island, particularly among the Afro-Cuban population. Pentecostal, Methodist and other evangelical groups are also making inroads.
They are more nimble because they organise worship in people’s homes. This is in keeping with the economic times, which have seen an explosion of private businesses – restaurants and small shops – in people’s gardens and living rooms that have challenged the old state monopolies in these sectors.
In Sandino – which has a population of 11,000 – the religious arrivals have made great inroads, according to Methodist pastor Román Guilarte, who said his congregation has increased from 15 to 150 since he moved into the area in 2009.
“There are more evangelicals than Catholics in this area and they are more dynamic and more likely to attend church,” he said. He too is expanding – by building a garage that may be used for services. “There is great potential for evangelising here,” he said.
The slower-moving Catholic church relies on bigger structures. But they should come. Three years ago, the government granted permission for one new church in each of the 11 dioceses on the island. None are built, but Father Cirilo has faith that they will be filled.
“I’m sure that after the visit of Francis, many people will convert. That’s evident,” he said. “This pope will be able to speak in a language that is very close to the people. His visit will exceed our expectations.”