Catholics on the Island Await Pope With Great Hope

 Oliver Maksan of Aid to the Church in Need

The Catholic Church in Cuba is looking forward with great expectation to the visit of Pope Francis, which began on Saturday. “It is a gift of God that within a short period of time he is already the third Pope to visit Cuba. Pope Francis is coming as the supreme pastor of the universal Church in order to strengthen us in the Faith. That is his most important task. We are hoping that the vitality that was unleashed by the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1998 will be reignited.”

This was the sentiment emphasised by Bishop Pepe Felix, the assistant secretary of the Cuban bishops’ conference, speaking on Thursday in Havana to the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). Pope Francis will arrive Saturday for a four-day visit to Cuba. In addition to the capital Havana, he will also visit the cities of Holguin and Santiago, before travelling on to the United States.

“The Pope is coming to us as a missionary of mercy. And so he is bringing something very precious with him. Cuba needs mercy, both the spiritual and the corporal works of mercy,” Bishop Felix insisted.

He went on to emphasise that Pope Francis can expect a particularly heartfelt welcome, for a number of different reasons. “The Cuban people are very grateful to Pope Francis for the role he played in the diplomatic rapprochement between Cuba and the United States. This is also true of those who are not Catholics.”

In addition he noted that this Argentinian Pope is a Latin American, who speaks the same language and understands the culture. “It is of course also true that this is the first real visit by the Pope to Cuba. The last time he only stopped for a few hours at the airport, in order to transfer into another aircraft,” Bishop Felix recalls. “But he knows the Church in Cuba very well from his meetings with bishops. This will help us to establish good mutual relations.”

On Thursday the chairman of the conference of Cuban religious, Father Juan Miguel Arregui Echeverria, emphasised to ACN the missionary possibilities of the papal visit. “For 50 years Cuba was a spiritual wasteland. People know little about religion. I hope the Pope will help with his spirituality to strengthen the religious awareness within the people.”

Father Juan, a Spanish Jesuit, also expressed the hope that the visit will help to extend the Church’s room for manoeuvre on the island. “This visit, we hope, will be an important step in normalising the situation of the Church in Cuba. Until not so long ago the Church could only operate within the church walls. She was also restricted to the purely spiritual sphere, namely the celebration of Holy Mass and the administration of the Sacraments. For the past few years we have been able to do more things, such as charitable and educational work. We believe that with the papal visit this charitable and educational work of the Church within society will become a little more normal.”

Among Cuba’s ordinary Catholics the enthusiasm for the forthcoming visit is immense. “Pope Francis is so important to us. We love him, because he is helping Cuba and our Church,” says Amalia Miguel from Guiteras, a suburb of Havana. “All Cubans believe in God. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. In the end, all we have is our faith. What would we be without it?”