An American Pope


It is unprecedented. For the first time in Catholicism’s more than two thousand year history, we have a pope from the Americas. The news did not go unnoticed in Havana, although the faithful did not gather euphorically at the doors to the cathedral, located in the  historic heart of the city.

Ricardo, a 43-year-old attorney and moderate Catholic, has other priorities. Within 72 hours he will become a Cuban emigrant. Yet another one. A few days ago he posted a hand-written sign on the balcony of his apartment announcing the sale of his furniture, a 32-inch plasma TV and a Sony Lenovo laptop. With the proceeds he hopes to buy a plane ticket to Costa Rica.

Surprised by the news, Ricardo thinks the challenges facing the new pontiff go beyond those of the Catholic faith. “Benedict XVI left behind a host of unresolved problems – from corruption within the Vatican itself to the troubling issue of pedophilia. I am happy that for the first time we will have a pope who is South American and Jesuit.”

Without access to the internet or cable TV, Ana Luisa, a 37-year-old primary school teacher, learned that the Argentine cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was the new pope while watching the eight o’clock TV newscast.

“I go to mass often. I was at the ceremonies in the Plaza of the Revolution during John Paul II’s visit and last year during Benedict XVI’s. I hope Pope Francis visits Cuba too. Cardinal Jaime Ortega’s participation on these occasions has been criticized. They accuse him of not being deeply involved in political issues and they might have a point.  But a priest’s job is to be a messenger of faith, not a politician,” says Ana.

In front of Iglesia de Paula, in Havana’s Sevillano district, a priest shares biographical details about the recently elected Holy Father with two neighborhood housewives. One of them notes the coincidence of Bergoglio having been born on December 17, a date charged with religious significance in Cuba.

On the eve of December 17 thousands of devout Catholics, santeros, paleros, animists and buyers of promises often walk a kilometer or more through a narrow, dark street and gather at El Rincón to venerate St. Lazarus.

It is a massive pilgrimage which people attend of their own free will. Since the Castro brothers came to power 54 years ago, official media outlets have never published a route or called upon people to venerate Lazarus, the patron saint of Cuba’s beggars.

The dissident community greeted the news of the selection of an Argentine pope coolly. Rolando, a human rights activist, recalls how in March 2012 Benedict XVI offended some by failing to meet with a single dissident or anyone from the Ladies in White.

It is not the best of times for relations between the opposition and the nation’s Catholic church. But there is no getting around the fact that Cardinal Ortega, at the request of military regime and in conjunction with Spanish ambassador Miguel Ángel Moratinos, played a decisive role in freeing almost one hundred political prisoners in 2010.

Although the majority felt compelled to flee to Spain, the jailed dissidents and their family members gave high marks to the role played by the church. A church which at a distance seems more comfortable talking to the government than to the opposition.

Cuba is by no means a country with a high percentage of Catholics. But in the last 25 years the number of people attending mass has multiplied. There is another reality – the proverbial religious syncretism. Afro-Cuban religious sects are not in agreement with Vatican policies which they consider discriminatory.

“Neither of the two popes who have visited the island have wanted to meet with practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions. In a country where the number of people who practice Santería or other versions of indigenous religions is significant, I feel it is counterproductive on the part of the church not to enter into dialogue,” says a Babalawo priest from Havana.

Nevertheless, nearly all those interviewed approved of Bergoglio’s selection. “America, and Latin America in particular, is the region of the world with the greatest number of Catholics, almost 480 million. It is a good signal that the conclave in Rome took us into consideration,” says Gloria, a practicing Catholic.

Bergoglio the Argentine will have to display his diplomatic skills, patience and wisdom in a continent that is a political stew. The Castros with presumably try to keep a pope born in Buenos Aires on their side and to get him to overlook the lack of democracy and freedom in the country.

Christians who have only one meal a day and who breakfast on coffee without milk hope that the new pope might be the voice of the dispossessed. “He didn’t pick the name Francis just because he liked it. It was allusion to Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the poor,” explains Ignacio, a retiree who, in spite of poor nutrition and material scarcity, has never wavered in his religious devotion.

These are trying times. To play the devil’s advocate, trying to banish vice and corruption within the Holy See will be a complex task. As God’s representative on earth people throughout the world will be asking him to get involved in their problems and to try to resolve them. Both Catholics and non-Catholics in Cuba believe the pope might be able to fulfill their expectations.

Neither the pope nor the church has the know-how to fill the void left by the economic disaster created by Fidel Castro, which has now been aggravated by the death of Hugo Chavez and the question mark hanging over our future. That is not its purpose. But if it could facilitate a dialogue among Cubans with different ideas and persuasions, this could begin to set a historic precedent,” says Ricardo, the attorney who in 72 hours will be flying to Costa Rica.

Perhaps the bar has been set too high for Francis, but we all believe we have the right to ask more of him than masses and prayers.

Iván García

16 March 2013