HIGHER POWER / Jorge Enrique Lage

Jorge Enrique Lage

A FEW MONTHS AGO the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre passed by my house. The Virgin, who was making a tour around the island, stopped on this corner of Nuevo Vedado.

“Come, neighbors, to receive to Our Mother!” the loudspeaker clamored. A small crowd gathered around the little car. I went up to my roof. From there I saw how they held their children up so the doll would bless them (or perhaps heal them). From there I heard the prayers and chants.

I suppose a few were motivated only by curiosity, but in most of the faces contemplating the doll a sincere faith could be read. A faith, it’s true, that suggested a return to the tribe. They were faces that made you wonder if a society full of worshipers would be able to build, not socialism now, but any approximation of democracy.

I looked at la Caridad del Cobre, the Patroness of Cuba in her brand new car, and it reminded me of that episode of South Park titled “Bloody Mary,” where the statue of the Virgin suddenly starts to bleed. Apparently the statue bleeds “out its ass.” People flock to her in search of cures for their ailments.

One of these sick people is Randy, Stan’s father, who suffers from alcoholism. The title of the episode is a play on that, as well. In Alcoholics Anonymous, Randy has learned that to cure himself he must embrace the idea of a “higher power,” a power “greater than himself.”

Although in practice, in these recovery programs, this power can be anything the individual chooses — a mental tool — we can’t forget the ultra-spiritual side of the AA tradition, nor this quote from William James, used as a header in their manuals: “The only cure for dipsomania is religiomania.” And of course, one of the strategies of South Park’s scriptwriters has always been to take terms and speeches at face value , to express them, to hystericalize them.

After submerging himself in the holy blood, Randy manages to stay sober. The Virgin has performed the miracle. It is then that Joseph Ratzinger, who is visiting Cuba at the time, appears on the scene; when “Bloody Mary” premiered in December 2005 he had been Pope Benedict XVI for a few months. (It was a current event: Ratzinger had to be made into a cartoon immediately.)

The Pope inspects the statue and comes to the conclusion that the blood is not coming out of her ass but rather out of the Virgin’s vagina. So there is nothing miraculous about it. After all, women “bleed out of their vaginas all the time.” Realizing that what he has done is to soak himself in menstrual blood, Randy turns back to drink. The Higher Power has been a deception.

What followed the premiere of “Bloody Mary” in the USA, at the end of the ninth season of South Park, is now part of the bulging file of disputes and lawsuits that the creators of this hardcore comedy series show off as their qualifications.

The Catholic League demanded an apology. And the episode was not released on DVD. And the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a letter to the president of Viacom — parent of Comedy Central, the cable TV network that airs the series — accused the company of showing “extreme insensitivity.” The images relating to the episode were removed from comedycentral.com.

Writing letters, pressuring and influencing directors, investors, advertisers. That is the sort of thing the Church does. The irony is that Ratzinger, guest star on “Bloody Mary,” at the time he was elected Pope was the head of the Cogregatio pro Doctrina Fidei — The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — formerly called the Holy Office, which was known in the Middle Ages as The Inquisition.

I wonder if the massively attended Mass that Benedict XVI will offer in Havana will be something that recalls South Park. I wonder how many of those who will gather there will be aware that this man, a pilgrim of la Caridad, headed a Roman institution whose history is also the history of the Grand Inquisitors.

And as the Mass will take place, of course, in the Plaza of the Revolution, these and other questions are more than appropriate. In this place, for many years, a man spoke to the multitudes in the name of a higher power: a Revolution eternal, immortal, much larger than ourselves.

The Revolution that came to save us, and for which every sacrifice and suffering, in the end, would have meaning. The Revolution with its great mass of the faithful, its dogmatists, its heretics.

Since the previous Pope’s visit in 1998, the space that the Catholic Church has progressively gained in Cuban society has, all this time, been associated with freedom and openings. It could be. But we cannot forget the view that, far beyond obvious antagonisms, this transition between a political act and a gigantic Mass in the Plaza is one of remarkable internal consistency.

Hopefully this occasion will serve to put in perspective what we mean by religious faith, and to submerge ourselves, at least a little, in the refreshing blood of irreverence and blasphemy. The earthly Cuba that we await in the future would benefit greatly from it.

Translator’s Note: This article appears on page 1 of the Independent Cuban Magazine Voices 14, released last Friday. Jorge Enrique Lage was born in Cuba in 1979, has a degree in Biochemistry, and had published prize-winning novels on the Island since 2002.