During his four days of intense activities, the Pope attained even more sympathy from the people. He won over the hearts of the people by his constant touching, kissing, and blessing of children and persons with mental and physical challenges; by his simple message of service to others, especially the most fragile; by his personal piety before the statue of the Virgin of Charity, the patron saint of Cuba; by his appreciation of Cuban culture and his affection for the people; by his pastoral preaching to all Cubans, of all creeds, of which there is a multitude in Cuba, and to believers and non-believers alike; by his constantly asking the people to pray for him; by his encounter with Fidel; and by his humility. One television commentator observed, “How many people have I heard say, ‘I am not Catholic, but I like the manner of this pope?’” The Vatican had promoted a trip by a “missionary of mercy.” And so it came to pass, as the Cuban people referred to him as the “Pope of Mercy.”
His homily during mass celebrated in the Plaza of the Revolution, in the presence of images of José Martí, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, was the simple message of a humble priest. It focused on the gospel story of Jesus admonishing his disciples, proclaiming that he who would be first should be dedicated to service to others. In Francis’ interpretation, service to others involves selfless service to the most fragile; to the most fragile in our families, in our society, and among our people, those that are unprotected and anguished.
No informed person can deny that few governments in human history have been as dedicated to the defense of the fragile as the Cuban revolutionary government from 1959 to the present. It has subsidized the costs of basic necessities, and it has built schools, universities, hospitals and clinics, available to all without cost. In spite of its limited resources, it has sent medical missions to Latin America, Africa and Asia, and it has educated doctors and other medical professionals from these lands. In a 1985 interview with Brazilian priest and liberation theologian Frei Betto, Fidel Castro observed that if the Catholic Church were to develop a state, it would do exactly what the Cuban revolutionary government has done: directing resources toward the satisfaction of the fundamental human needs of the people. This convergence between Cuban revolutionary and Christian values is a consequence in part of the influence of Catholic schools on the petit bourgeois leaders of the Cuban Revolution.
Just a few hours after his departure from Cuba, the Cuban news television program, the Roundtable, dedicated its program to reflections on the ramifications of the visit of Pope Francis. All expressed the view that there is a confluence between the Christian values of Pope Francis and the humanistic values of the Cuban Revolution. And it was observed that the visit of the Pope comes at an important moment in Cuba, in which the nation is seeking a renovation of Cuban values at a time when consumerism looms as a threat. See “Cooperatives and social change in Cuba” 8/7/2015.
In his September 22 message at the Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Cobre in Santiago de Cuba, the Pope was perhaps calling upon Cuban Catholics to be more engaged in the work of service to others that is integral to the Cuban revolutionary project, when he called for a “revolution of tenderness” that brings Catholics to greater involvement in service to others.
Like Mary, we want to be a Church that serves, that leaves from home, that leaves the Church and its sacristies, in order to accompany life, sustain hope, and be a sign of unity of a noble and dignified people. Like Mary, the Mother of Charity, we want to be a Church that leaves home in order to build bridges, break down barriers, and seed reconciliation. Like Mary, we want to be a Church that knows how to accompany our people in all awkward situations, committed to life, culture, society, not disappearing but walking with our brothers and sisters, all together. All together, serving, helping. All children of God, children of Mary, sons and daughters of this noble Cuban land.
. Although cooperation between religion and socialism is a possibility, revolutionary processes must take the position that religion is a private matter. The separation of religion and state is necessary in the modern world, where there exists a diversity of religious beliefs as well as non-believers. On this theme, see “Revolution and religion” 12/3/2013, which was written in the context of a series of posts on the French Revolution.
The separation of religion and state has been the historic position of the Cuban Revolution, and it was persistently maintained even in the context of the enthusiasm for the visit of Pope Francis. Pope Francis himself has an inclusive message, calling all, believers and non-believers, to a life of service to others.
Oficina de Publicaciones del Consejo de Estado. 1985. Fidel y la Religión: Conversaciones con Frei Betto. La Habana: Oficina de Publicaciones del Consejo de Estado. (English translation: Fidel and Religion: Conversations with Frei Betto on Marxism and Liberation Theology. Melbourne: Ocean Press).