Thoughts on the Pope’s first homily in Cuba

Nobody denies the basic fact that people in need require generous help from those who can give it. Just how this help is best given, however, is a huge problem.

Pope Francis gave his first homily in the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana on September 20th. The general subject matter was Christ’s explanation that the basis of honor is not so much what we are worth, but what we do for others. The Gospel for the day was from Mark 9. The apostles are caught in an embarrassing moment (vs. 33ff), discussing who was the greatest among them. They do not really want to expose themselves to Christ but, unfortunately or fortunately, he already knows of their conversation about who is “first” or “greatest”. The Pope takes this occasion to ask us to ask ourselves what we talk about. Do we focus on on inane issues such as who among us is the greatest?

Christ did not insist that the apostles come clean and tell him what they discussed. But he knew that was the concern in their hearts: Who is the greatest? Most of us, I suppose, have engaged in such arguments about who is greatest in one thing or another. And, in fact, some people are better than others in various ways, otherwise the question would never come up. Can we really imagine a world in which not only is no one better than anyone else, but no one thinks he is?

We cannot escape the question of “who then is the greatest?” The Pope says that in a family, we sometimes hear the question of “who does the father or mother love the most?” It brings to mind that Willa Cather’s novel My Antonia was based on this issue. And what was interesting about the novel was that the Antonia did love one child more than the others, but that did not mean that she did not love the rest of the children. Indeed, they did not envy the child but loved it also. That is really the proper context of the question.

Jesus did not hesitate to inquire whom we love most. He did not have any fear of “humanity” nor of the various questions posed to him. He knew the “recesses” of the heart. He was a “good teacher”. Jesus always gave a response that turned out to be also a “challenge”. It was not what most people expected. Jesus always acted on his “logic of love. This was a logic capable of being lived by all because it is “for all”.

Far from any “elitism”, Jesus did not speak for a few privileged or to a distinct level of “spirituality”. Jesus’ point of view was always “everyday life”. Even “here” on this island (Cuba), daily life has a certain “taste of eternity”. We cannot forget that political structures do not in principle prevent us from reaching beyond them to eternity, though we may suffer for thinking so and living its truth.

Who is the greatest? Jesus is straight-forward in his response to the question. Those who are greatest are those who are last and who are the “servants” of others. This is the great “paradox” of Jesus. Let us pay attention to what this means.  “Serving others chiefly means caring for their vulnerability.”  There is a school of thought which holds that it is precisely the care of those who are not perfect that teaches us how to be human. The Pope goes on to speak of care over all sorts of the weak and sick. “Love must concretize itself in actus of love and decision.” People with flesh and blood need “care”.

“Christians,” says Francis, “should serve the dignity of their brothers, struggle for their dignity and live for it.” The Christian is always called to put himself at the service of those who are most fragile. Of course, there is a kind of service that looks only to those we like. The Pope seems to maintain that no distinction of who is served is possible. We are not called to a service that “serves ourselves”.

“The people who live in Cuba are a people who love feasts, friendship, and beautiful things.” It is a people who “walk, sing, and praise.” Like all people, it has its “wounds”. It stands with its “arms open. It walks in “hope” because “its vocation is to greatness.” Today, you are asked to take notice of your “vocation”. You are to take care of the gifts that God has given to you. But especially care for the “fragility of your brothers.” 

“Do not cloud yourselves because of projects which can seduce you.” See the face of those “next to you.” We testify to the incomparable force of the “resurrection which produces in every land the seeds of a “new world.” Do not forget the “Good News of today, the greatness of a people, of a nation, of a person. This is always based on how we serve the fragility of our brothers. In this we find one of the true fruits of humanity because, dear brothers and sisters, he who does not live to serve, does not need to live.” These are the Holy Father’s final words in his first sermon in Havana.

What are we to make of those words? We have thought for fifty years that Cuba was a totalitarian state that imposed severe restrictions on everyone, including the Church. Though there are the usual human frailties, nothing much more seems to be at issue. This silence may be a question of prudence and fear of making things worse. And other occasions besides a homily may be better venues to bring such questions up, in talking to Raul and Fidel Castro, for instance. The Pope, the American president, and the Castros all seem to think that things are better now; the problem, apparently, was mainly the embargo unjustly imposed on the island. It makes it seem that the thousands of Cubans who fled the regime wasted their time and efforts and sacrifice.

The heart of the Pope’s sermon was the classic change in the purpose of rule that Christ gave us. Almost every government in the world today follows this instruction. The purpose of rule is not self-aggrandizement or personal wealth or glory, but service. Even totalitarian regimes now insist that service is their central purpose.

Few would have any problem with this principle; it is now almost taken for granted. It does leave one impression, however, that doesn’t seem well thought out: it makes it appear that the rule would not exist unless there were the fragile and the poor needing attention. It tends to look on people as the objects of somebody else’s care. It’s as if we need a steady supply of those who cannot fend for themselves to justify our existence. The business of the state and culture becomes taking care of those who cannot help themselves.

Nobody denies the basic fact that people in need require generous help from those who can give it. Just how this help is best given, however, is a huge problem. Governments grow rich and powerful claiming the weak and disadvantaged for their own. It justifies their power whatever they do. Things like abortion, euthanasia, population control, and welfare are all argued, however convolutedly, on the basis of serving others. Even the sale of baby parts is justified in terms of serving others.

All this shows, in the end, is the complexity in talking to absolutist regimes of whatever form, even apparently democratic ones. Pope Francis has reminded all of us that we should not serve ourselves, that he who serves is the greatest. Yet, when we look at Cuba, we still see the same people in power, ruling much the same way. And when we look at ourselves, we see that those who rule us now tell us that we must obey the law, even if it is unjust.

In Syria the other day, as reported in the August 28th edition of L’Osservatore Romano, ISIS forces captured one of the most ancient monasteries in that land, with a history going back to the second and fourth centuries–a place of record, of pilgrimage. After the capture, the abbot was never seen again; an 80-year-old monk, the scholar who knew these ancient things, was decapitated in front of his library. ISIS released a video tape showing the execution, in case we have any doubts.

ISIS forces then proceeded to destroy the buildings, uproot the tombs, and eradicate any sign of a Christian presence in the land. There was no “dialogue”. When I think of serving the fragile today, Cuba does not seem so bad. I wonder if the Pope and Fidel talked of these things, even though not on the agenda. The Cubans are famous for sending troops to what they call Africa or Latin American trouble spots. I wonder if Fidel could spare a few troops for where they are really needed today, which is surely not Cuba.


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About James V. Schall, S.J. 177 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. One of his last books was On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018). He died at the age of 91 on April 17, 2019. Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.