Interview – Cuba        06.10.2015

INTERVIEW – Long term impact of the Pope’s visit

Joop Koopman – ACN International

Ulrich Kny is responsible for Cuba in the Project Department of the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). He travelled to the island nation last month for the papal visit. In this interview with ACN’s Joop Koopman, he gives his impressions of the trip and speculates on its likely longer-term impact.

What did Pope Francis bring to Cuba?

Ahead of his visit, Pope Francis had already triggered great enthusiasm as a result of his successful role as a mediator in the diplomatic rapprochement between Cuba and the USA. For most Cubans he had given new hope of an imminent end to the US economic embargo. Consequently, as soon as he arrived in Havana, he was jubilantly welcomed by tens of thousands of flag-waving Cubans.

However, the Holy Father was not principally visiting Cuba as a head of state, but rather as a missionary of mercy. 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.

Pope Francis also came with a whole string of appeals in his baggage. For example, he called on people to “live the revolution of tenderness like Mary, the Mother of Mercy”. In Havana he called on young people to establish a “culture of encounter”. And he called on all Cubans, despite their differences of opinion, to “establish a social friendship” that seeks the common good, and to “walk together in the search for hope, in the search for the future and the nobility of their fatherland”.

By virtue of the fact that Pope Francis not only addressed himself to the Catholic faithful but to all Cubans – both Catholics and non-Catholics, both Cubans on the island and Cubans living in exile – he was, in the truest sense of the word, in Cuba as a “pontifex“ – as a “bridge builder“.

There was also a small, perhaps coincidental, side effect of the papal visit: many Cubans were also delighted when, with the arrival of the Holy Father in Cuba, the first, long-awaited raindrops for months began to fall. For in fact Cuba had recently been suffering from an exceptionally long period of drought.

What effects has his visit had already?

Even though as yet only a small percentage of the Cuban population can be described as active Catholics, nonetheless the visit of Pope Francis in Cuba was the all-dominating theme during this time. Even the Cuban state television reported on the papal visit with live broadcasts and documentaries to an extent rarely seen before. Hence millions of Cubans were able to follow the engaging homilies and speeches of the Holy Father in their own mother tongue. Even if some among those who are not themselves Catholics were not entirely open to the words of the Pope, yet nonetheless the gestures of the Holy Father – the way he approached people, the way he gave his total attention to those who were able to meet him personally and the way he blessed the sick and the children – these gestures of openness, warm heartedness and humanity must surely have touched the hearts of all the Cuban people.

What do you think the legacy of Pope Francis’ visit will be?

It is not yet possible to say what the long-term consequences of the visit of Pope Francis will have for Cuba. No doubt the really important topics were addressed in the personal meeting between the Holy Father and the Cuban President Raul Castro, and likewise in the meeting with the Cuban bishops in the seminary of Saint Basil the Great, in Santiago de Cuba. Both these meetings took place in private, with the press excluded. But their meeting with Pope Francis must have left a deep impression on the Cuban bishops, and he for his part will have listened with great attention when some of them spoke about the situation in Cuba.

I hope very much that, following this papal visit, the Church in Cuba will not be simply fobbed off with another official public holiday – after the visit of Pope Benedict XVI Good Friday was re-established as a public holiday, but apart from that nothing much really changed for the Church – but that this time the Church will really be granted more room to develop as a consequence.

What is the state of the Church in Cuba? What are its successes?

Officially, the Cuban government professes to respect religious freedom. Yet in actual practice the Catholic Church in Cuba is still very far from a normal pastoral situation. For all events or celebrations outside the actual church walls official permissions must be sought, which is not only very humiliating for the Church workers but is also again and again fraught with chicanery. This was particularly evident on this occasion in the run-up to the papal visit. For example, there were many tears among the organising team who were preparing for the meeting of the Holy Father with young people in Havana because, right up to the last minute, it was not clear whether the preparatory programme for these young people would be approved by the authorities. And in many of the dioceses they had to fight hard to be granted enough places on the buses and trains for all the pilgrims wanting to travel to the three papal Masses.

There is another major problem in the fact that the Church is granted insufficient access to the communications media and is also currently being granted no permits for the import of vehicles. Moreover – apart from a handful of exceptions, such as a church that was consecrated by Pope John Paul II in Havana, and which we helped for financially – the Catholic Church is repeatedly 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 places of worship 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. Her efforts to promote the well-being of the Cuban people, which is evidenced in an increasing degree of social commitment, is being recognised even by the government, and more and more of her activities are at least being tolerated.

What are its challenges in the short term and the long term?

The Church in Cuba is facing a whole series of challenges. First of all she is lacking in the human, material and logistical resources she needs for strengthening and deepening the Faith of the Cuban people. After close on 40 years during which faith was banished exclusively to the private sphere and within the church walls, Cubans have slowly begun, since the visit of Saint John Paul II  and increasingly in recent years, to emerge from the catacombs and display their faith in public as well. 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 (priests, religious sisters, deacons, lay pastoral workers) available. Many young and committed members of the laity can see few prospects for the future, given the continuing difficult situation in Cuba, and consequently tend to emigrate, with the result that it is very hard to guarantee any kind of continuity in the formation of the laity.

The altogether inadequate public transport system in Cuba is a further source of problems in relation to the formation and ongoing training of pastoral workers and interested laity, since it is almost always necessary to hire vehicles (trucks and buses) in order to be able to get the Catholic faithful to the place of the gathering.

On top of this, the altogether antiquated stock of vehicles belonging to the dioceses, the constant need to repair them and the general lack of vehicles make it impossible to provide an overarching pastoral ministry with frequent visits to the outstations and sub-parishes.Again, the high fuel costs (one liter of petrol costs almost a 10th of a doctor‘s average monthly salary!) and the high fuel consumption of these old vehicles makes every journey a costly enterprise.

Then there is another problem for the Church in the extension of her infrastructure. I already mentioned that it is difficult to get permissions for new church buildings. In fact the Church has meanwhile found a quite effective temporary solution to the creation of new spaces for worship. If it is not possible to build new churches, then she can at least purchase private homes and apartments and use them as chapels, presbyteries or convents for sisters. Additionally, in recent years the Church has managed to get back many of her old buildings that were confiscated shortly after the revolution. Mind you, most of them are in an utterly rundown condition and have to be first of all restored at considerable cost. The great obstacle here is the shortage of building materials and of money, and likewise the long drawnout business of obtaining permissions.

But I see another and still greater problem for the future of Cuba in a sort of moral deformation of Cuban society. By that I mean not only the already widespread practice of abortion, but more generally the absence of Christian values in the educational sector, over which the state has had a monopoly for decades. Another problem has to do with the so-called “exceptional period“, in other words the profound economic crisis into which the country was plunged, following the collapse of its most important economic partner, the USSR. Because of the chronic economic crisis and the drastic food rationing, Cubans have been forced to develop new survival strategies. Since their wages are mostly paid in the weak, local currency but many daily necessities are only obtainable in the convertible currency tied to the US dollar, people are either dependent on financial support from relatives abroad or practically forced to steal state property or at least buy stolen goods on the black market. The slogan used to describe this practice is “resolver“ in Spanish, which means more or less “to find a solution“. This kind of basic attitude, which is of course contrary to Christian moral values, is one that nobody can blame the Cubans for given the current situation. Yet it harbours great dangers for the future, for it is another thing that contributes ultimately to a thoroughly corrupt society.

Can you comment on recent changes in U.S.-Cuban relations? How are relations with the expatriate community in the U.S.?

As I mentioned at the beginning, the Cubans in Cuba are very grateful for the thaw in relations, because it gives them great hope of an improvement in their material situation and also because they can intensify their contacts with their relatives in the United States. I‘ve already noticed on the squares in the evenings, in many towns where the Cuban government has recently established Internet hotspots, how many people there were with the most modern laptops, tablets and smartphones, surfing on the Internet or exchanging chat messages and emails with their relatives in the USA. Most of these gadgets and their expensive access codes are paid for by their relatives abroad.

What can the Cuban Church offer the rest of the world?

The Church in Cuba has learnt 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. I am particularly impressed by the creativity with which the bishops, priests, religious and laity are able to slowly but steadily expand the limited room for manoeuvre allowed them in their work of evangelisation.

What would you recommend people outside Cuba do to help the country?

Above everything else Cuba needs our prayers, so that the words and gestures of the Holy Father can fall on fertile soil and so that Our Lady of Mercy of El Cobre can continue her “revolution of mercy“. At the same time, we must continue still more intensively than before to support the Church in Cuba actively, so that she can exploit her full potential for evangelisation and at least not be held in check by shortage of financial resources. The present time, following the visit by Pope Francis, is in my view a very favourable moment to invest heavily in the formation and support of priests and religious, of catechists and lay pastoral workers and also in the improvement of the Church infrastructure and the promotion of religious literature, so that more and more Cubans can have the opportunity of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.

What counterproductive actions should people outside Cuba avoid?

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. The Cuban leadership has realised, thank God, that the Church is not interested in political opposition but in the welfare of the Cuban people. Nor does she restrict herself to denouncing injustice, but is seeking dialogue with the government and with society and is for her part 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.

Joop Koopman