As Pope Benedict's historic March 26-29 visit to Cuba begins today, several lay Catholic leaders on the island voiced support for the Cuban bishops' non-confrontational stance toward the Communist government.
EWTN News spoke with various lay leaders involved in the Church’s ministry in the cities of Holguin and Santiago – where the Pope will be welcomed on Monday afternoon – on comments by certain dissidents in Cuba and abroad who accuse the bishops of not taking a stronger stance against the Castro regime or of not using their moral authority to push for a quicker transition to democracy.
Because of the delicacy of the situation, the leaders agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity.
During their remarks to the agency, they all emphasized that the local bishops' relationship with the government is more complex than what is usually seen from abroad and in the media.
For example, Pope John Paul II's 1998 visit to Cuba did not produce visible political changes, it did open a “radically different” era, in the words of one lay leader in Santiago.
A prominent lay woman in Holguin said that unlike some Catholic communities behind the Iron Curtain, such as Poland, “The structures of the Catholic Church in Cuba completely disappeared.”
“The Church not only lost innumerable properties, but also the right to any kind of education, association or lay organization.”
Consequently, religious ignorance and disinterest in the Catholic Church, especially among the so-called “intermediate generation” – those born before or shortly after the Communist revolution – became a massive phenomenon.
“In Santiago, for example, there are more people who practice Santeria than go to Mass, and many of those who attend Mass practice Santeria,” another lay leader from this western Cuban city said.
They explained that Pope John Paul II’s visit over a decade ago not only opened the door for local churches to recover confiscated properties, but also to receive international aid to repair churches and even build new ones.
In fact, the slow construction of a new church located along the route between Holguin and Santiago can be clearly seen from the highway that connects the two cities. A statue of Our Lady of Charity – the patroness of Cuba – is already on display at the new church.
Likewise, the Cuban government has returned to the Archdiocese of Santiago most of the properties surrounding the Cathedral – which is currently under renovation – and the space once occupied by a popular ice cream shop has now become a Catholic book store displaying posters announcing the imminent visit of Pope Benedict XVI.
But the most important achievements are not material ones, said another lay leader from Holguin.
“Although we have not regained the right to attend Catholic schools or universities, the options for association and education have grown almost explosively,” he said.
He also pointed out that lay leaders, including himself, from many Cuban dioceses have been granted access to travel to other countries, especially Mexico, to receive advanced formation in catechesis, family ministry, communications and other fields of study.
“Some of us are teaching pastoral formation classes as well as career studies to a growing number of young people,” one lay leader in Santiago said. “Because of this, a new generation of young people are growing close to the Church and receiving formation in faith,” he added.
Many of these programs are attracting interest, as various Cuban dioceses have been authorized to establish agreements with foreign universities – mostly in Spain – and thus issue college degrees. “This was something unimaginable just a few years ago,” he said.
The local laity recognizes that the bishops of Cuba are the target of criticism from internal dissidents and from a large number of Catholic Cubans living in exile, who would like to see them take on a more vocal role similar to that adopted by the Church in Poland.
They are also frustrated because the official schedule for the Pope’s visit does not include a meeting with dissidents such as the “Women in White.”
The lay leaders noted that it’s not the bishops but the government that makes the final decisions regarding the Pope’s agenda, and they acknowledged that they did not know if the bishops had proposed including a meeting with the political dissidence in his agenda approved by the government.
However, the leaders explained that the bishops have preferred to prepare the Church so that when a new era for country arrives, there will be a significant number of committed lay people, which until recently were almost non-existent.
“Is this a risky decision that could have a high political cost in the future? For sure,” one of them said. “Could the bishops have a more energetic role in support of political prisoners or calling for political changes on the island? Possibly, yes,” he added.
Nevertheless, he denied that the bishops of Cuba are avoiding a confrontation with the government out of fear or convenience.
The bishops' decision is a prudential judgment, one of the lay leaders added.
“It has been carefully planned and thought through. Many analysts criticize it, and nobody thinks the decision is perfect. But a better understanding of the reality inside Cuba is needed before rushing to make a judgment,” he said.