Testimony Before Congress on Papal Visit to Cuba, March 4, 1998

Year Published
  • 2013
  • English

Prepared Testimony of Thomas E. Quigley
Policy Advisor on Latin American and Caribbean Affairs
United States Catholic Conference

March 4, 1998

House Committee on International Relations
Western Hemisphere Subcommittee

My name is Thomas Quigley and I am policy advisor on Latin American and Caribbean affairs at the U.S. Catholic Conference. I wish to thank you, Mr. Chairman, and the Committee, for giving us the opportunity to reflect on the visit of Pope John Paul II to Cuba. May I also thank and commend you for H.Res. 362, the House Resolution "Commending the visit of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Cuba." It expresses very well many of the perceptions of the visit and concerns about Cuba shared also by the leadership of the Catholic Church in this country.

My prepared testimony consists first of some observations about the goals and expectations of the visit as expressed prior to the Pope's arrival; second, some comments on the visit itself, highlighting a few of the more striking aspects; and third, a review of the post-visit statements of the Pope and the Cuban bishops. With your permission, Mr. Chairman, I will read an abbreviated form of the statement and ask that the entire text be included in the Record.

I. Before the Visit: Goals and Expectations

What expectations were lifted up prior to the Cuba visit? In his New Year's address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, the Pope summarized his goal for the visit as offering the "opportunity to strengthen not only the courageous Catholics of that country but also all their fellow citizens in their efforts to achieve a homeland ever more just and united, where all individuals can find their rightful place and see their legitimate aspirations realized." It was to strengthen and hearten the long-suffering people of Cuba.

And in their pastoral letter last November, the Cuban bishops wrote "The Pope comes to announce to today's Cuban the truth about Jesus Christ and the human person, so that we might have hope." Giving hope to the Cuban people, especially giving heart and encouragement to the faithful, all of whom have suffered in various ways throughout these last decades, was an often cited theme. The Pope was coming, as the posters that appeared all over the cities proclaimed, as Messenger of Truth and of Hope.

Bishop Emilio Aranguren, Secretary of the bishops' conference and one of the key organizers of the visit, offered some five expectations or hopes for the Pope's visit: (1) to be able preach Jesus Christ openly; (2) to feed the hope of the people as they face the future; (3) to help the country recover its ethical values, personal, familial, and social; (4) to gain recognition of the Church's threefold mission in society: that of public worship, of prophetic voice and of service to the needy; and (5) to foster reconciliation among all the Cuban people, on the island and in the diaspora. Each of these themes was to be reflected again and again in the discourses of John Paul II.

II. The Visit Itself

From the very beginning, on arrival at Jose Mart¡ airport, the Pope sounded the themes of hope, freedom, mutual trust, social justice and peace, and used the phrase that would become emblematic throughout the visit: no tengan miedo, be not afraid. It was the same phrase with which he had begun his pontificate twenty years ago: "Do not be afraid to open your hearts to Christ." It was to reverberate among the many thousands who came out to pray with him at each of the four open air Masses.

"May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential," he urged, "open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba, so that this people, which is working to make progress and which longs for concord and peace, may look to the future with hope." It is no exaggeration to say that seldom if ever before has Cuba so opened itself to the world and the world to Cuba as during those five days. Whether the weeks and months that follow will demonstrate the fulfillment, or the frustration, of that prayerful plea is what, I presume, lies at the heart of these hearings.

Without prejudice to the unknowable future, and the possibility of a reversal of the logros religiosos, the religious gains, evidently achieved before, during and immediately after the papal visit, one can and should acknowledge the concessions made by the State in order that the visit might succeed. The government allowed for the first time many things that had been proscribed for over thirty years: open air services and processions with the statue of Our Lady of Charity in every diocese; door-to-door visitations by thousands of active Catholics to tell their neighbors about the up-coming visit; issuance of a number of visas for foreign clergy and religious to come to work in Cuba; publication in Granma of the Pope's Christmas message to the Cuban people and re-establishing Christmas, at least for that year, as an official holiday; granting Cardinal Jaime Ortega a half-hour on national TV and, at the last minute, allowing all of the papal Masses to be carried live and uncensored on Cuban TV. It was the first time that so many things happened for the first time. It was even the first time Cubans saw their president wearing a business suit in Cuba.

But, and it is important to stress this, the stirring and eloquent words of the Holy Father, while so dramatic as they were being heard in the context of this extraordinary event were not in fact being said in Cuba for the first time. So much of what the Pope said--on the family and the challenges confronted by today's society, on the breakdown of basic moral values, on the need to extend and respect people's freedom and human rights, on the restrictions imposed on the Cuban people both from within and from abroad, on the need for reconciliation within the Cuban family, both on the island and with the Cubans of the diaspora, all these and more have been central to the Cuban Church's message to its people for over a decade.

Among the several pastoral letters and exhortations issued by the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba (COCC) in recent years, probably none is more significant than the 1993 pastoral El Amor Todo Lo Espera, "Love Hopes All Things." There can be found much of what the Pope was later to say.

Much of the letter is a searing indictment of the breakdown of moral values, social harmony and material sufficiency that the Pope referred to in his visit. Even the justly praised welcoming remarks in Santiago de Cuba by Archbishop Pedro Meurice who chided those who confuse the nation with one political party--la Patria con un partido--or the nation's culture with an ideology, all this was already part of the discourse of the Cuban bishops when they singled out the "closed and omnipresent quality of the official ideology, which leads to identifying terms which cannot be made synonymous such as homeland and socialism, nation and government...Cuban and revolutionary."

What was new in 1998 was the reception such remarks received from the authorities. After the 1993 pastoral came out, there were not so veiled charges of treason circulating in some of the Cuban media. No longer, it seems, is that the case, illustrated best by the farewell extended to the Pope by President Castro when he warmly thanked the Pope "for every word you have said--even those I might disagree with."

III. After the Visit

Following the visit, the Pope spoke on January 28 of this "unforgettable papal visit" and directed special recognition to President Castro and the other authorities who made it possible, and to all who gave him such "a moving welcome." He spoke of the people having become "reconciled with their own history" and the visit as "a great event of spiritual, cultural and social reconciliation that will not fail to produce beneficial results on other levels." The Pope summed up by asking: "How can we not acknowledge that this visit takes on an eminently symbolic value due to the unique position that Cuba has occupied in world history in this century?. . .This visit of the Pope came to give voice to the Christian soul of the Cuban people."

And in their February 12 message to all the people of Cuba, ­Abran Sus Corazones a Cristo! "Open Your Hearts to Christ!", the bishops also thanked all who cooperated to make the visit a success, "from the highest authorities of the country who treated the Holy Father with exquisite care to the humblest workers."

The bishops noted the "marked social nature" of much of the Pope's discourses, including his reference in Havana to the "Social Gospel" and his frequent treatment of themes such as justice within and among nations, and his reference to the challenges posed by today's "neo-liberal capitalism." References to freedom were frequent; indeed a word search of the homilies comes up with 53 occurrences of libertad, a word that was chanted repeatedly from the thousands in the Plaza on Sunday. "In the same line of his social teaching," the bishops further recall, "in referring to the restrictive economic measures imposed on Cuba from outside, he called them clearly unjust and ethically unacceptable."

The bishops end their message by citing reasons for hope, including the recent pardons granted by the government of a good number of prisoners and the re-established or strengthened relations with other countries that followed the visit.These are already some of the genuine reasons for our having confidence in the future, say the bishops.

The U.S. Catholic Conference, Mr. Chairman, has also expressed its hope and a measure of confidence that the several concessions made by the Cuban authorities, before, during and after the visit, bode well for other improvements within Cuba. Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, speaking for the Conference, has taken note of these concrete steps and urged that there be reciprocal steps taken by our government. I would ask, in closing, that the two recent statements of the Conference on Cuba be included in the Record.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.


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