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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Despite Controversy, Pope Brings Hope to Cuba From Within...

When Jesus first appeared on the scene in the early part of the First Century, many Jews were waiting for a Messiah that would liberate them from the control of the Roman Empire and restore the Davidic kingdom; through what they envisioned would be armed conflict.

Instead, what they got was not the savior they expected, but a poor and humble carpenter from Galilee, who preached a freedom, not from the binds that tied them to this world, but from the sin, hate and rancor that bound their souls from the next. It was an internal and transcendent freedom centered on love.

As if that weren't unsettling enough to some, He told them to turn the other cheek, to love their enemies, to pray for those that persecuted them and told slaves to obey their masters.

Is it too late for repentance?...
This week, Pope Benedict XVI concluded a three-day pilgrimage to Cuba, where he traveled for the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the image of Our Lady of Charity (La Virgen de la Caridad) to three fishermen in the Bay of Nipe in 1612.

While most in the Catholic world embraced the trip as an opportunity to bring the gospel to one of the last bastions of communism in the world, some in the Cuban exile community criticized it because they believed it gave legitimacy to the longstanding abusive regime and served as another public relations coup for the dictatorship.

It is a never-ending struggle amidst a community that was betrayed by Fidel Castro, who promised democracy and, instead, turned to communism, then were forced to leave everything they knew and loved and go into exile, which has lasted over fifty years and, during that time, has been repeatedly maligned, provoked, scorned and ridiculed by the Cuban leadership.

Having lived the exile experience for the past forty-two years of my life, and never growing up knowing the place I was born, the place my parents met or lived, my paternal grandparents, who passed away without me ever knowing them, and many of my aunts, uncles and cousins, who I have never met, I can understand the pain and longing; albeit through the eyes of my parents, grandparents and relatives.

We came claiming political asylum in 1969, since my father had been involved in the counter-revolution and government agents came looking for him shortly after we had left.  My brother and I would have grown up, like many exile children, without a father, because they were locked up in Castro's prisons (including many who were psychologically and physically tortured or executed). 

So, last year, when the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI was traveling to Mexico and Cuba, many in Miami's exiles community were skeptical.

Let’s face it, anything that even remotely resembles a step towards the brutal dictatorship is received with mistrust in the exile community (And, I don't mean this as a jab. It is the reality of the many years of suffering the separation from their homeland and loved ones and their antagonistic relationship with the communist rulers).

However, after realizing it was going to happen, with or without their approval, they started hoping the pope would boldly criticize and challenge the Cuban government for its atrocious human rights record against dissenters, and would meet with dissident groups, some of which, had asked to meet with him.

Like the Jews in the First Century, they wanted a warrior to take on the powers that be.

Instead, the leader of the Universal Church went as a humble and loving theologian, who, like the Church's founder, was more willing to proclaim a hope from within the human heart then from the chains without.

And, to make things worse, rather than meeting with dissidents, he met with their greatest nemesis Fidel Castro himself and, as the Church has always done, criticized the U.S. embargo on Cuba, which many exiles support.

Although, his homilies were laced with powerful calls for freedoms, albeit through Jesus Christ, they were not the line-in-the-sand sermons that some exiles hoped to hear.

Like a co-worker told me, "I was very disillusioned. Even Jesus said to give Cesar what is due to Cesar and overturned tables and whipped the Jews at the temple!"

What could I say? He was absolutely right. But, first things first; you cannot give what you don't have and the second part of that Cesar verse says and to God the things that are God's. If someone doesn't know God, he doesn't know what to give God.

In a country, where an entire generation has grown up without God, the focus of Pope Benedict, like that of Bl. Pope John Paul II, who visited the island in 1998, was to bring the "good news" of the gospel to a people thirsty for the Truth of Jesus Christ.  It was to bring them hope.

As for ruckus at the temple, Jesus was upset precisely because the Pharisees and scribes were not giving God the respect due to Him and were making a mockery out of the House of God. It follows the same principal as  the Cesar statement.

In fact, Jesus rarely (and I don’t recall an instance) spoke against the Roman regime. He was more focused on saving the Jews' souls and attacking those that misled them spiritually.

This leads to another point of contention for many Cuban exiles; the apparent silence and weakness of the Cuban Catholic Church in lieu of the ramped abuse by the government against its people, including a group of Catholic women, who walk each week to and from their parish demanding freedom and the release of political prisoners.

Look, I realize there is a perception, deserving or not, among some exiles that the Cuban Church is a puppet of the state and led by Pharisees-like clergy, especially the highest ranking Catholic on the island, Cardinal Jaime Ortega. But, it’s easy to criticize from the outside. I don't know what’s going on internally; the conversations, the negotiations and agreements.

Wenski at La Catedral de la Habana...
The closest outsider, to the internal workings of the Cuban Church, may be Archdiocese of Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who for many years led Caritas, a charity that provides necessities for the poorest of the poor on the island, and he continuously defends and exalts the good work being carried out by his Cuban counterparts.

And, for those that don't know him, Wenski is not one to mince words.

The archbishop got his own share of flack from some in the exile community for leading a pilgrimage of over 300 Catholics to Cuba for the papal visit. But redeemed himself when, during a homily in Havana’s Cathedral on Tuesday, he criticized Marxist ideology and urged Cubans “to be the protagonists of their own future,” which prompted a standing ovation from the  faithful.

Wenski says he was only repeating the message of the Successor of Peter, Pope Benedict XVI, who on his way to Mexico last week said, "It is evident today that Marxist ideology as it had been conceived no longer responds to reality... New models must be found, though with patience."

As for me, when it comes to choosing between faith and country (although I must admit I feel more American than Cuban), I will always choose as St. Thomas More, who once said, "I am the king's good servant, but God's first," when asked to choose between his loyalty to King Henry VIII and the Catholic Church.

The Church's ultimate goal is to save souls and what I see from the outside indicates that for the first time, since the Cuban Revolution took power in 1959, the seeds planted may be bearing fruit.  A Catholic seminary to cultivate priests was constructed outside of Havana (the first time the Church was allowed to construct in over 50 years).  Over the past year, there was a jubilee procession of a replica of La Virgen de la Caridad that worked its way across the country, allowing millions access to their patron saint, and over the past several years the Cuban Catholic Church has been growing by leaps and bounds.

During his homily in Havana, the pope said:
“The Church lives to make others sharers in the one thing she possesses, which is none other than Christ, our hope of glory. To carry out this duty, she must count on basic religious freedom, which consists in her being able to proclaim and to celebrate her faith also in public, bringing to others the message of love, reconciliation and peace which Jesus brought to the world… When the Church upholds this human right, she is not claiming any special privileges for herself. She wishes only to be faithful to the command of her divine founder, conscious that, where Christ is present, mankind becomes more human and founds its consistency. This is why the Church seeks to give witness by her preaching and teaching, both in catechises and in schools and universities. It is greatly to be hoped that the moment will soon arrive when, here too, the Church can bring to the arenas of knowledge the benefits of the mission which the Lord entrusted to her and which she can never neglect.”
Aside from the open air masses attended by hundreds of thousands of Cubans and the pope's visit to the Basilica of Our Lady of Charity to pray, one of the most memorable moments of the TV coverage for me (and like most of the journalists from Miami that applied to cover the papal trip, I was denied access by the Cuban government) was an interview with a college-age girl in Havana, who told a news reporter, “I am proud to be Catholic. I know that God exists and I want to scream it out to the world.” This was shot during a prayer vigil organized by Cuban youth for Pope Benedict.

In a society marked by its communist government’s self proclaimed atheism in years past and, that shortly after taking power, forced most Catholic priests and religious to leave, seized parishes and Church property, closed schools, and harassed, marginalized and persecuted believers, it is astonishing how far of a stretch that young girl’s statement to the media represents.

In fact, it may have even been a difficult comment to pronounce just fourteen years ago when Bl. Pope John Paul II visited the island at a time when Cuba was much more closed to religion and consumed by its own focus on self preservation, less than a decade after the fall of Communism in Russia (That's not to say, they are not consumed with the same preoccupation today).

It prompted the late pontiff to proclaim, “May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba.”

After the historic Mass last Wednesday, as another co-worker pointed out to me, under the same obelisk in La Plaza de la Revolucion, where for decades Fidel Castro spewed hate, division and scorn, Pope Benedict talked about truth, love and hope.  He said, “Cuba and the world need change, but this will occur only if each one is in a position to seek the truth and chooses the way of love, sowing reconciliation and fraternity.”

Yes, the Cuban government may have used the visit for politics and, at every opportunity, used the international press to spew its rhetoric, while rounding up and arresting over 200 dissidents during the three-day period and preventing others from attending the papal masses, but this trip was not about the Cuban government.  It was about the Cuban people, the oppressed and the not so oppressed, and the freedom and hope that is ignited, fanned and burns from within their spirits.

As another young Cuban girl stated so eloquently, “We need to ask for unity. We need to ask for change but the kind of change that starts from within each of us.”…

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