After Pope Francis’ visit as a “missionary of mercy,” Cuba is now in a prime moment to move forward in its relationship with the Church and work for the common good, said a representative of an aid group that works in the country.
“What he brought them above all was his message of the ‘logic of love’ of Jesus – a love of selfless service to our fellow men, a love that is capable of transforming hearts with a glance of mercy, a love that is active, goes out and builds bridges, a love that is revealed in a special way in family life,” said Ulrich Kny, head of the Latin American section for Aid to the Church In Need.
Kny is responsible for the Germany-based international Catholic charity’s projects in Cuba. He was in Cuba for the Sept. 19-22 papal visit.
Kny recounted that the Pope had exhorted Cubans to “live the revolution of tenderness like Mary, the Mother of Mercy.” The pontiff also encouraged Cubans to establish friendships that seek the common good despite their differences.
The Pope’s success in mediating closer diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba had already generated enthusiasm among Cubans, Kny told CNA Oct. 6.
“For most Cubans he had given new hope of an imminent end to the U.S. economic embargo. Consequently, as soon as he arrived in Havana, he was jubilantly welcomed by tens of thousands of flag-waving Cubans.”
Despite the small percentage of active Catholics in Cuba, the papal visit dominated media coverage. Cuban state media televised live broadcasts of papal events and documentaries about the Pope.
Kny believes the Pope’s “gestures of openness, warm-heartedness and humanity” touched the hearts of all Cubans. He cited the Pope’s manner of approaching people and giving total attention to those who met him personally.
Despite the difficulties facing the Church in Cuba, the Church’s efforts to promote the well-being of the Cuban people is being recognized by the government, Kny said. “More and more of her activities are at least being tolerated.”
“The Church in Cuba has learned over decades to survive in an atheist environment. She has now emerged from the catacombs and – despite all the opposition and difficulties – has become an active force in society and has earned for herself great respect in all levels of Cuban society. The Church in Cuba can today offer the universal Church her own experience in dialogue with a society that for the most part has no knowledge of God.”
Kny has been particularly impressed by the creativity of the bishops, priests, religious and laity who are able to “slowly but steadily expand the limited room for maneuver allowed them in their work of evangelization.”
The visit of Benedict XVI in 2012 brought the re-establishment of Good Friday as a public holiday, but did not yield much substance improvement in the government’s stance toward the Church. Kny hopes that Pope Francis’ visit will mean the Church “will really be granted more room to develop.”
The Cuban government officially professes to respect religious freedom, but in practice the Catholic Church is still “very far from a normal pastoral situation,” according to Kny. The Church must seek official permission for all events or celebrations outside church walls, a difficult process that is “fraught with chicanery.”
Ahead of the papal visit, organizers had to wait until the last minute for official permission for the preparatory program for the Pope’s meeting with young people in Havana. Many dioceses had to fight for enough places on planes and trains for pilgrims who wanted to travel to the three papal Masses.
Other major problems include insufficient access to communications media and the lack of permission to import vehicles for pastoral work. Church construction also faces large obstacles.
With few exceptions, “the Catholic Church is again and again not granted permission to build new churches, whereas Protestant groups and sects such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been allowed to build more and more temples in recent years.”
“Yet despite all the difficulties, it is noticeable that the Catholic Church is becoming an ever more important player within Cuban society,” Kny affirmed.
He encouraged prayers for Cuba and efforts to strengthen support for the Church so that she can overcome financial obstacles and reach her full potential for evangelization. This will help the Church give Cubans the opportunity for “a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.”
He said the time after Pope Francis’ visit is a “very favorable moment” for this support.
At the same time, he cautioned, the Church in Cuba lacks the human, material and logistical resources to strengthen and deepen the faith of the Cuban people, decades after the communist revolution.
“The hunger for God is enormous, yet many Cubans have only a very sketchy knowledge of their faith. The task of deepening this knowledge, by means of an extensive catechetical program and through the experience of a personal encounter with the living Christ, represents an enormous challenge for the Church in Cuba and one for which she simply has too few pastoral workers available,” Kny told CNA.
Young Catholic laity have few prospects and tend to emigrate, meaning it is very hard to guarantee continuity in lay formation, he said. The failures of Cuba’s transportation system and high fuel costs also limit Catholic gatherings. Church vehicles are antiquated and in constant need of repair, which hinders the capacity for pastoral visits.
While the Church is reacquiring properties confiscated after the communist revolution, these require costly restoration work when building materials and money are in short supply, he continued. Securing official permissions for repair work is again a drawn-out process.
For Kny, the greater problems for Cuba include “moral deformation.” Not only is abortion widely practiced, but there is a general absence of Christian values from education, which is run by a state monopoly.
The country is continuing to struggle economically since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main economic partner. Cubans also face drastic food rationing. People are often dependent on financial support from relatives abroad, they buy stolen goods on the black market, or even feel forced to steal state property.
They describe this practice using the Spanish word “resolver,” which roughly means “to find a solution.”
“This kind of basic attitude, which is of course contrary to Christian moral values, is one that no one can blame the Cubans for, given the current situation,” Kny said. “Yet for the future it harbors great dangers, for it is another thing that contributes ultimately to a thoroughly corrupt society.”
Recent changes in U.S.-Cuban relations have helped Cubans strengthen their connections with relatives in the U.S. Kny reported that many people gather at newly established internet hotspots to surf on the internet or to chat and e-mail their U.S. relatives.
“Most of these gadgets and their expensive access codes are paid for by their relatives abroad,” he said.
The Cuban government has long been controversial because of its actions against its own people, especially political dissidents. Catholic human rights advocates and others are frequently detained.
However, Kny hoped for a way forward.
“For all the justified criticism of the human rights abuses and the restriction of the freedoms of the Cuban people, we should avoid any kind of polemics and confrontation,” he recommended. “The Cuban leadership has realized, thank God, that the Church is not interested in political opposition but in the welfare of the Cuban people.”
He said the Church does not restrict herself to denouncing injustice. Rather, she seeks dialogue with the government and with society while “doing everything possible to introduce Christian values and convey to the Cuban people a hope that unites and that offers life and future.”
“I believe that the Church in Cuba is on the right path here.”
The Aid to the Church in Need website is http://www.churchinneed.org.
By Kevin Jones