14ymedio, Fernando Donate Ochoa, Holguín. 21 September 2015 — He shares both his faith and Argentine citizenship with Pope Francis, yet Father Marcos Pirán Gómez is not on Cuban soil for just a few days. He has been living on the island for fifteen years, and since 2012 has been the parish priest of San José (Saint Joseph’s) Church in Holguín.
A few hours before the Bishop of Rome travelled to this land of mountains, heat, and seas, Father Marcos met with 14ymedio to discuss his parishioners’ expectations, the difficulties besetting his community, and the role of the Church in finding solutions.
14ymedio: What did you feel when you heard that Pope Francis was coming to Holguín?
Marcos Pirán Gómez: I felt an enormous thrill because of the joy another Papal visit would mean to our people; the third one in just 17 years, such a short period of time. This is a significant event not only for the life of the Church, but also for the Cuban people. Each one of the previous Papal visits have left its mark.
Pope Francis is an exemplary and admirable person for the way he thinks, for what he does, and for his beliefs, which are consistent with how he lived in Argentina. I remember what he was able to generate around him, especially in Buenos Aires where we were neighbors living in the same area, and where we had more contact with each other. I know a lot of things from back then that are now known in the public square.
14ymedio: How will this Papal visit to the island be different?
Marcos Pirán Gómez: This third visit is also linked to the resumption of talks between the Cuban and American governments. This time stands out because it hopes to keep alive the first step taken on December 17th of last year.
Pope Francis has closely followed the history of the Cuban people. He wrote a book about John Paul II’s trip to Cuba, which undeniably signaled a before and after. It not only did so as far as the relationship between the Church and the Cuban government is concerned, but the relationship between religion and the government as well.
14ymedio: Is there special interest for Cuba in the Vatican?
Marcos Pirán Gómez: Interest and worry for these people. Cuba has undergone a political and social experiment unlike that experienced by most of Latin America’s people. It’s different in the fact that Communist ideology takes precedence in Cuba, so theres a very different attitude towards religion here than in most other countries.
Starting with John Paul’s visit, an effort was made to initiate a new type of relationship (between the Church and the State) in which there would be an official recognition of the of religiosity of individuals and of our people as a whole.
14ymedio: What do believers in Holguín expect from this visit?
Marcos Pirán Gómez: On the one hand, the people of Holguín hope this visit will help them regain their enthusiasm and hope. There’re many people who due to different difficulties, such as the frustrations of life, the breakdown of families, the scarcities, have lost their will to forge ahead. The Pope can help reverse this because his message aims to break apathy and indifference.
14ymedio: Do you sense a lot of apathy?
Marcos Pirán Gómez: Yes. People are apathetic because of their incapacity to react to situations they don’t agree with. When an individual stops demanding or voicing his concerns, whether it is out of fear or because he thinks it would be useless, that is worrisome, because it shows an attitude of apathy and indifference. I hope, and many others do as well, that the presence of Pope Francis will help bring about a reawakening.
14ymedio: So you are excited about the visit?
Marcos Pirán Gómez: Very excited. I’ve been especially impressed by people who don’t practice any religion but who see the (Papal) visit as a very positive thing. People are hopeful this visit will bring something that’ll make them better persons.
14ymedio: The authorities have conceded that violence, drug addiction, suicide, and other social ills have increased in Holguín. Is there a spiritual crisis in Holguín?
Marcos Pirán Gómez: The family unit in Holguín is very damaged and divided. There’re a lot of difficult situations, and that affects the social order.
Family units are fragmented because of financial difficulties, and because a lot of people emigrate, and that brings suffering. People don’t know how to discuses issues, how to accept one another, how to collaborate, or how to promote solidarity within the family setting. When this starts happening to the family unit, it resonates throughout society at large, while adding to the already existing personal crises in each individual’s life.
14ymedio: The Cuban government pardoned 3,522 before the Pope’s arrival. What can you say about this?
Marcos Pirán Gómez: Some have reacted happily, while others were disappointed because they thought they met all the conditions for a pardon but weren’t. The announcement (of the prisoner release) states that those convicted of “crimes against State security” would remain incarcerated. That’s why in this case it is a matter of opinion if those still being held are political prisoners or not.
14ymedio: Are there political prisoners in Cuba?
Marcos Pirán Gómez: This isn’t conjecture. The government itself has admitted there are political prisoners. Several years back, the President mentioned them. I don’t know how many there are, because there’s a lot of information I don’t know or have any access to. That’s why I can’t say for certain how many political prisoners there are, or where they are.
14ymedio: Has the Church in Holguín, or you, received a request from the opposition to meet with Pope Francis?
Marcos Pirán Gómez: Up until now, that hasn’t happened. However, we have received letters from people directed to the Pope, asking him to intercede in support of freedom for their relatives serving prison sentences. Still, I don’t know if these cases are political prisoners.
14ymedio: Has the relationship between the Church and the State in Cuba been strengthened?
Marcos Pirán Gómez: The preparations for the Pope’s visit have opened the way for some dialog. Catholics in the Papal visit’s organizing committee note there have been important changes when compared to eighteen years ago while preparing for John Paul II’s visit.
Also, for some time now we have been noticing that the government has somewhat stopped pressuring mission houses or small (parish) communities from opening. Today, these houses do exist, but there was a time when the government wouldn’t allow people to gather in homes to celebrate the Word, to pray together, or to exchange ideas. The result of this is an increase in the social ills we’re now facing. When you keep something from growing over a long period of time, that has negative repercussions.
14ymedio: The Catholic Church in Cuba does not have at its disposal a radio station or a television channel. Doesn’t that limit your pastoral work?
Marcos Pirán Gómez: Nowadays, having access to the media is very important. I don’t like things that are just Catholic. I’d like more diversity in the Cuban media. I don’t need to have my own radio station, TV channel, or newspaper, because that in itself is exclusionary. I’m not interested in that way of thinking. What I do wish is that there be space for other voices, other ways of thinking, and other messages that contribute to the common good, within the media that already exists.
Translated by José Badué