Activist’s Death Reveals Benedict’s Concern for Cuban Dissidents

Accusations of Vatican indifference to pro-democracy efforts in Cuba are unfounded, says a long-time observer of Church-state relations in Latin America.

As reported by the Vatican Information Service, Benedict XVI sent a condolence telegram after the traffic accident of July 22 that killed Cuban activist Oswaldo Paya Sardinas, founder of the Christian Liberation Movement and winner of the 2002 Sakharov Prize, and Harold Cepero Escalante, youth leader of the Movement, and injured a number of others. Paya had received notoriety for his plan for Cuba’s peaceful transition to democracy, which was called the “Varela Project” after Venerable Felix Varela, and was signed by more than 25,000 Cubans.

Having learned of the “tragic episode,” the Pope asks Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino of Havana to inform the victims’ families of the Holy Father’s “heartfelt condolences and spiritual closeness. At the same time he prays to the Lord that the injured may be restored to complete health.”

The telegram continues: “The Holy Father likewise raises fervent prayers to God for the eternal repose of the deceased and asks Him to grant consolation and strength to those who, at this sad time, are weeping their irreparable loss. … Invoking the protection of Nuestra Senora de la Caridad del Cobre, and as a pledge of copious divine favor at this time of suffering, the Holy Father affectionately imparts his apostolic blessing as a sign of faith and hope in Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of mankind.”

This telegram is the best response to those who accused the Pope of having neglected dissidents during his Cuban visit in late March 2012.

“I sought to embrace the entire continent, inviting everyone to live together in hope in concrete commitment to united progress towards a better future,” the Holy Father said referring to his recent visit to Mexico and Cuba during the general audience on April 4, 2012. Regarding in particular the trip’s Cuban leg, he said he went to the Communist country “to support the mission of the Catholic Church, which is committed to the joyful announcement of the Gospel, notwithstanding limited means and despite the difficulties which still have to be overcome before religion can offer its spiritual and educational services in the public arena.” He also gave assurances that “the Pope carries the concerns and aspirations of all Cubans in his heart, especially those suffering due to restrictions on freedom.”

During Mass on the previous Sunday morning in Cuba, the Pontiff recalled, “I reminded everyone that Cuba and the world need change. This will only come about if everyone opens to the integral truth about man (an indispensable premise in order to achieve freedom) and decides to spread reconciliation and fraternity. … I also underlined the fact that the Church does not seek privileges, but asks to be able to proclaim and celebrate the faith, also in public, bringing the Gospel’s message of hope and peace to all sectors of society.” In this context, Benedict XVI called for the progress made by the authorities in Cuba to continue until achieving complete religious freedom.

Benedict concluded the general audience with a mention of the Easter Triduum, as Good Friday had been declared a public holiday in Cuba at the request of the Holy Father himself.

“The fact that the Cuban authorities have immediately accepted the request made by the Holy Father to President Raul Castro, declaring next Good Friday a holiday, is certainly a very positive sign,” Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi said, welcoming Cuba’s decision. “The Holy See hopes that this will facilitate participation in religious celebrations and favor a happy Easter holiday. It also hopes that the Holy Father’s visit may continue to produce fruits for the good of the Church and of all Cubans.”

Accusations of Benedict’s neglect of Cuban dissidents are without foundation, according to Mario Paredes, for whom this visit was “remarkable indeed.” As part of a delegation of 40 benefactors and staff members of the American Bible Society, Paredes flew from New York to Havana to participate in the papal visit.

Paredes currently serves at the American Bible Society as presidential liaison on United Nations Initiatives, Roman Catholic Projects, as well as Hispanic Ministries. For 27 years, he has served the US Catholic bishops of the Northeast as head of the Regional Office of Hispanic Ministry under the leadership of Cardinals Terrence Cook and John O’Connor. He has also served as founder and director of the Northeast Hispanic Catholic Center and as a White House appointee for Latin America under President Reagan. In this capacity, he was an observer of elections in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Surinam, and Haiti. He has served as consultant to the Latin American Commission for the Vatican and to the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops. 

Paredes kindly agreed to answer the following questions.

What are your thoughts about the criticism that the Pope did not meet any dissidents during his visit to Cuba?

Paredes: No doubt the dissidents have raised serious concerns because they are opposing the lack of freedom, the lack of participation, the lack of democracy [in Cuba]. But those are coming. I am totally certain that those changes will take place in the Cuban society.

That the Pope did not see some of those leaders or individuals is true, but our Holy Father is 85, his time in Cuba was very limited, he had to choose his priorities, and the most important priority was to speak to the people of Cuba—to the nation—and to help really to bring a message of hope. That was what the Holy Father did.

The other thing is—we have to be careful that we do not politicize everything the Church does, and everything that the Church speaks about. Finally, I would say, the role of the Church is not to place or replace a regime. The role of the Church really is to bring the teachings of the Gospel into the discourse of the public square. And it is for us, the laity, to take those teachings and make them real in a given society. It is frustrating in many ways that the dissidents did not have a hearing, but I believe that the visit should not be politicized.

The main reason for the Pope going to Cuba was not to challenge the regime. The main reason for going to Cuba was to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the finding of the image of Cuba’s Patroness, the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, as part of the Holy Father’s evangelization efforts. These were the real reasons for going to Cuba. Those who do not understand the Church, who do not frequent the Church, but want use the space of the Church—they get very frustrated and very angry.

What is your evaluation of the Pope’s visit? What struck you the most?

Paredes: The visit of Cuba was a remarkable event in the life of the Church of Cuba. This pope had the ability to gather hundreds of thousands of people and address them in language that was easy to understand and follow. His message was a message of profound religiosity for the people.

He was in two cities, in Santiago where the national shrine of Our Lady is located, and in the capital, in Havana. The homily of Havana was a real masterpiece. The Pope applied the scriptures that were read at the liturgy, explained the scriptures, and at the same time he tied them to the current situation of the Church in Cuba. He called for the world to open up to Cuba and Cuba to open up to the world. But this opening will have to be based on truth, reason, and understanding. Changes will come not because of a fanatical movement that is irrational—quite the contrary, they will take place if those changes that are needed are based on reason and truth. That is what is needed in the Cuban society today.

For the Church, the visit of the Holy Father meant a tremendous boost, a tremendous injection of vitality and new enthusiasm to continue to gain space in the Cuban society.

The first papal visit of John Paul II 14 years ago gave to the Church the ability to begin to gain a respectful role in the Cuban society, and in the last 14 years a lot of changes have taken place in Cuba. During his visit to Cuba, John Paul II blessed the first stone of the building for the brand new seminary, which was inaugurated last year. This a clear sign of a new space for the Church, but not only that has been gained in these 14 years; adult formation and training centers have been created all over the country, and de la Salle brothers, Jesuits, Dominicans, and other religious groups have established training centers for adults where they hold all sort of classes—computers, business administration, English language, etc., and of course theology, scriptures, etc.

Other changes include the creation of nurseries for the parishes, where religious sisters have been able to open nurseries for working mothers—none of them existed before, and the Church was never allowed to provide those types of services. They are celebrating the anniversary of Catholic Charity in Cuba. For years now Catholic Charity has been able to provide services to the community and to the Cuban people. I know of another change—the creation of an academic center in the capital where they are beginning to offer a master’s degree. Those are all changes that are totally unheard-of before.

So, Pope Benedict XVI has come to confirm what the Church is doing; has come to confirm the engagement of the Church with the regime, in collaborating on social issues; has come to confirm the rightful place the Church is asking for in Cuba—in the mass media, in publications, and in all the areas where the Church has been restricted from having any space.

The public manifestation of faith and religion in the street and in the public square today is common knowledge, whereas in the past they were totally prohibited. You could not have a procession in Cuba years ago, but after John Paul II[‘s visit], now all these new developments have arisen. [Catholic leaders] could not speak on radio or television in the past, and today frequently you will see Church leaders speaking on radio and television. No doubt there is close collaboration between the Church and the government, there are many more things to be done, but you have to begin somewhere and the Church has begun, thanks to the vision and the leadership of the late John Paul II and our Holy Father today. [There is a need] to confirm what the Church is doing in Cuba and to call the Cuban people, especially those who are Catholic, to continue to serve the Church and society with the vision that comes from the Gospel values.

I think this visit was remarkable indeed. In Santiago the attendance at the public Mass was a quarter million people. In Havana there certainly were more than half a million people. Those squares were solidly packed with people, and these places are huge places—to say nothing about how well organized the public liturgies were. All this was done with the full collaboration of the government, otherwise, in Cuba, none of it would have happened. 

We read about a possible deathbed conversion of Fidel Castro. What is your opinion?

Paredes: I think that those are real exaggerations. We have to remember Fidel was raised as a Catholic and in his early years he was educated by the Jesuits—he attended a Jesuit high school. He has a frame of reference, which is the Catholic Church. If he will convert—who knows, he certainly was baptized. But obviously, when you are on your deathbed, anything can happen, including a last-minute conversion. For us Christians, it’s a duty mandated by our Lord to hope and pray not only for Castro’s conversion, but for all those who need it, and ultimately for all to be saved. 

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About Alberto Carosa 42 Articles
Alberto Carosa is a Catholic journalist who writes from Rome, especially for US Catholic newspapers and periodicals.