Reflections on Pope Benedict’s Visit to Cuba
The miter leans slightly with the rhythm of the ritual, leaving his back exposed to the stone face of José Martí. On the table of the Mass, the chalice rests and reflects from its golden surface a relief of Che Guevara mounted on the facade of the Ministry of the Interior. Benedict XVI officiates mass in the Plaza of the Revolution, and the whole scene could not be more contradictory, more unreal.
In the red heart of red Cuba, the Lord’s Prayer is heard, and a few yards from Raúl Castro’s office, a multitude responds with an “amen” instead of the traditional “fatherland or death.” In the street in front of the altar, ordered reticles contain those attending the Catholic liturgy. When the television cameras pan the scene it’s clear many of them don’t know how to pray or how to cross themselves.
There is also a VIP area filled with the members of a government that defines itself as Marxist and atheist. The Communist Party leaders aren’t wearing olive-green but rather suits and ties, but even so they clash with the white clothes of the many believers and the red of the cardinals. Wednesday, March 8 has barely dawned and the island seems exhausted by the two days St. Peter’s successor has already spent among us.
The visit began in the east of the country. After the jubilant throngs that greeted him in Mexico, the Pope found a surprisingly orderly people here, lined up along the road between the airport and the city of Santiago de Cuba. The crowd carried no posters nor were shouts of joy heard; it was simply a gentle stream of people with little flags waving in their hands. An image perfectly suited to the adjectives “educated, composed and organized” which the newspaper Granma had used a few days before to describe the people who would wait for Benedict XVI.
Also, with sufficient lead time, schools and workplaces received their marching orders. “We must show respect to His Holiness, believers as well as non-believers. No one can miss Mass,” they were warned at meetings called by union, party and student leaders for this purpose.
Knowing the euphemisms that rule Cuban official language, reading these marching orders was clear: no enthusiasm and no spontaneity; anything that departs from the program will be punished. In some companies, whose employees received a bonus in convertible currency, the message was even more direct: those who don’t attend will lose the hard currency cash stimulus. Which explains, in part, why so many atheists and materialists showed up at dawn in the plazas on the days when the Supreme Pontiff celebrated Catholic worship.
The preparations for the papal visit had started months earlier, when it was announced that His Holiness would visit us for the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the image of the Virgin of the Caridad del Cobre. Our patron, popularly known as Cachita, was found in the Bay of Nipe in the early 17th century. Two men and a teenager, all three named Juan, found her floating in the water.
So Cachita, rescued from the waves by those arms, became the Mary of a people who, centuries later, would launch themselves into the Straits of Florida on rafts, doors converted into boats, and trucks made watertight so they would float. The Mambisa Virgin, who was also with those who demanded Cuba’s independence from Spain at the point of machetes, now adorns the altars of our compatriots scattered across the globe. She has her shrine in Miami, as she has her sanctuary in Santiago.
Cachita was the first rafter, only did she not escape, she arrived, not wanting to reach other horizons but to stay with us forever. And in honor of this “traveler of the faith” Joseph Ratzinger also came to Cuba. To pray in a temple full of offerings, known as El Cobre, for its proximity to copper deposits. In the entrance hall of the busy church — the Chapel of Miracle — is a varied collection: locks of hair dedicated by girls planning to marry a foreigner alternate with booties from babies written off by doctors but who managed to survive. Bracelets from the 26th of July Movement left there by rebels who once wore scapulars, but ended up banning them. In one corner a card recalls the dissidents imprisoned during the Black Spring of 2003. Only under Cachita’s cloak can such plurality coexist.
Fidel Castro’s mother herself offered this Virgin the silhouette of her son sculpted in gold so that he would survive the rigors of the Sierra Maestra. Ernest Hemingway’s Nobel Prize lies side-by-side with several military orders that belonged to the Fulgencio Batista’s soldiers and officials. All the elements of the national melting pot come together at the feet of Cachita, under the protection of the crown that adorns her head.
Benedict XVI also brought his own gift for our patron: The Golden Rose, one of the highest decorations awarded by the Catholic Church. And with each day the offerings grow, as five hundred people cross the threshold of that temple daily,; on the weekends the numbers double. Some from devotion, others out of curiosity. Who knows?
Joseph Ratzinger entered this sanctuary one warm March morning, surrounded by the faithful. On the steep road leading there he didn’t see any of the vendors who normally offer wood carvings of the Virgin of Charity. Nor were there the traveling sellers or flowers, candles and little pebbles speckled with copper.
Also missing were the Ladies in White, who every Sunday make a pilgrimage to the temple of our Patron Saint. They were there for several days before being warned by State Security to stay away. Several of them were subject to house arrest, while others fared worse, ending up in one of the area’s jail cells.
Like someone who cleans the house to receive an important guest, the Cuban government had decided to sweep all the inconvenient citizens under the carpet. To achieve that, they triggered the strongest campaign of repression of recent years. [More]