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The Gospel in the hearts of men and women

· ​On Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba ·

During the Extraordinary Consistory last February, after I greeted the Pope Francis before the start of the first session, he turned to me and said: “I have an idea: to come to Cuba”. I shared with him my enthusiasm at the idea and suggested he add it on to his visit to Latin America in July. The Holy Father looked a bit perplexed, as Cuba was out of the way and the extended journey would already span three countries. But he said: “We shall see”.

In the afternoon session of the second day, Pope Francis motioned for me to come up to his table and he said, smiling: “I have decided to come to Cuba and I’ve already told Msgr Angelo Becciu. A visit to Cuba will be added onto my journey to the United States in September”. I answered him: “Your Holiness, I am returning to Cuba with tremendous joy!”, and I thanked him. I then heard him say something that touched me even more deeply: “It’s the least I can do for you all”.

I have the good fortune of being the only Archbishop to receive three Popes in the same See. During that final afternoon of the Consistory, many recollections of these three popes flew through my mind in such rapid succession that I was barely able to follow the speeches of my brother Cardinals.

I recalled with deeply filial affection St John Paul II’s visit to Cuba — this pope had risen on the horizon of my vocational discernment like a bright beacon, he had led me to become, first, a young Bishop of Pinar del Río (1978) and, three years later, to be the Archbishop of Havana (1981). Then, at the Consistory of 1994, it was he who created me cardinal. What closeness and fatherly affection I always sensed, what steadfast support at every moment, even when, at the end of his precious life, all his strength seemed to have left him!

For economic and social reasons, at the start of the 90s, Pope John Paul ii was unable to accept the Cuban Bishops’ invitation to visit our country, an invitation he very much wanted to accept due to his interest in the situation of our Church, which had lived through situations similar to his own Poland.

Several years passed before our invitation was accepted by the Pope. In 1998, nearing the close of the millennium, weakened in the few years that had passed since we invited him, Pope John Paul II was finally able to embark on his emotional visit to Cuba. It would remain a ray of sunshine for the Church in our country and a milestone in her history and in that of the Cuban people as a whole. In his opening address to Cuba and the world, he made reference to our country’s isolation from the American continent and from the world, calling for this isolation to be broken — “May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba”. This call resounded around the world; it can still be heard today and it grows stronger with every event that seems to confirm the hope and prayer of that Holy Shepherd. An example was last 17 December, when the presidents of Cuba and the United States announced simultaneously the reinstatement of diplomatic relations between the two countries with the opening of embassies in their respective capitals.

And so began a new phase in diplomacy between two nations that have been separated for more than 50 years. During that historic announcement the two presidents thanked Pope Francis for his part in the process that led to this reconciliation and paved the way for coexistence and dialogue. Behind this agreement stands Pope Francis’ discrete but effective and clear conviction: that the creation and fostering of dialogue is indispensable in the resolution of tension and conflict. It’s not the first time he has stood by that conviction in his pontificate, but perhaps the continuously tense situation between Cuba and the US made it all the more important for the Holy Father’s silent intervention.

The path of dialogue between religions, of the Church’s dialogue with other Christian confessions and with Judaism, was significantly strengthened by Pope John XXIII and his convocation of the Second Vatican Council, which brought the Church, in a renewed way, into the concrete history of humanity in the 20th century. This call to dialogue was accepted by Pope Paul vi, who admirably promoted it throughout his pontificate. The best expression of that is contained in a few decisive words from Pope Montini: “Dialogue is the new name of love”. With these words the Pope illustrated how human beings must relate and the style that must prevail in the Church, among nations, among different groups in society and between Christians and the the world.

The Pontificate of St John Paul ii was enveloped in this journey of dialogue. He lived through a difficult dialogue as bishop in his native Poland, but he nevertheless promoted it, even when it seemed barren and impossible. His direction and his teachings were faithful to that fundamental spirit of Vatican II, in which he himself had participated.

Seeing these things close up, I found in Pope Benedict xvi a clear continuity with the Church’s line of interaction with the modern world, in her structures, in her political-social function and in the realm of ideas and conceptions that underlie current thought. In the latter context, Pope Benedict expressed himself magisterially: in his brilliant contribution to the style in which the Church dialogues, in his literary and personal contact with modernity and in the formulation of his thought regarding dialogue in interreligious, social and political spheres. All these constitute an inestimable treasure in the understanding of the fundamental role of dialogue in the life of the Church and of all Christians.

In June 2012, the current Pope emeritus visited Cuba as a pilgrim during our jubilee — we were celebrating the 400th anniversary of the rediscovery of the statue of Our Lady of Charity, Patroness of Cuba, which had been lost at sea. In an unforgettable conversation, the Pope expressed his happiness about the trip, for which we, the Cuban bishops, were so grateful. He warmly recalled the official welcome he had received, and the friendly gestures towards him. It was in that context that he spoke of dialogue as the rightful path of the Church. On various occasions I have cited these words from Pope Benedict, who struck me by the conviction with which he spoke them. He said: “Dialogue is the only path for the Church.... The Church is not in the world to change governments, but to penetrate the hearts of men and women with the Gospel”.

Pope Benedict XVI said this to me just before stepping down from the See of Peter. When, some months later, we Cardinals gathered together for the conclave that would quickly elect Cardinal Bergoglio as Supreme Pontiff, I had the opportunity to speak with the future Pope about Latin America and Cuba. At a certain moment in the conversation, while alluding to dialogue and its importance in the current climate of grand transformation in Latin America, I remembered my last conversation with Pope Benedict. He had said to me that dialogue was the only path for the Church in her relationship with political structures. Applying his words to the context at hand, I repeated them to the future Pope Francis, who raising his arms up in the air, exclaimed: “This should be written on a plaque and placed at the entrance of every city in the world”, and he repeated it, word for word: “The Church is not in the world to change governments, but to penetrate the hearts of men and women with the Gospel”. He then added: “Every social and political climate should be accompanied in a climate of dialogue”.

Shortly after Cardinal Bergoglio was elected to the Chair of Peter, we were filled with joy over having a Latin American Pope. He was someone close to us, who had handed to the Episcopate of Latin America in Aparecida, Brazil, the conviction that the Church is Christ’s mission for our people, that we all, bishops, priests, and lay people, should be conscious of our being missionaries. Seeing that the new Pope would surely communicate that evangelical zeal, I could not but ponder what Pope Benedict had said about the Church’s mission: “The Church is in the world to penetrate the hearts of men and women with the Gospel”. This is what the new Pope had repeated to me with such profound conviction, and which fervently inspires his pontificate.

This is Pope Francis, who will soon be with us in Cuba: a missionary pope who comes to our little country, as he did to Sarajevo, Sri Lanka or Albania; who comes to a country which has overcome isolation and distance, thanks also to the dialogue that the Church and the Popes of 20th century fostered. And it was Pope Francis who spurred and supported dialogue between the people and the governments of Cuba and the US. He comes among us to reaffirm the missionary condition of the Church and her preference for the little ones, the poor. He comes as a missionary of mercy. No other motto could better describe him in this world of ours laden with hardship, loneliness, every form of poverty, faded hopes and void of God, where love is seen as a game in which sad losers and false victors play for themselves and never manage to find true Love. And this has thrown the family, whose role is irreplaceable in the formation of new generations, into crisis, which is why it is at the centre of the Holy Father’s pastoral concern.

There is an essential link between the family and the restlessness and longing of the young people, whom Pope Francis will meet in Havana on Sunday evening. That meeting will, thus, be a very special moment during his visit to our country.

The God who is Love will be presented in Cuba by Pope Francis — to young people, to families, to priests, to sisters and to everyone: the merciful God who understands and forgives.

In the “José Martí” Plaza de la Revolución, before the altar where Pope Francis will preside at the Eucharistic Celebration, there will be a giant display of the Merciful Christ spanning ten floors of the National Library. At this moment, our Cuban people, like all people of the earth, need to experience mercy, not pity or mere condescension, but understanding of the human heart in all its restlessness and limitations. We will feel the encouragement of one who reaches out to us to lift our soul with simplicity and humility, just as Pope Francis will know how to do in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, as he passes through the streets of Havana, and especially during his meeting with young people.

How much can really be done in such a short period of time, just a glimpse of the Pope passing by in the distance? Sometimes a glance, a gesture, a smile is all it takes to know that God comes among us and that, through his Vicar on earth, Christ is visiting his people.

Thus we welcomed St John Paul ii, Pope Benedict XVI, and thus we wait for Pope Francis. The people have not always been the same: some have gone to God the Father, many have emigrated. Emigration has left its mark on every family in Cuba; it is a perennial temptation for our youth. The emigration of young people and the low birth rate means that the population of Cuba is rapidly declining and aging, and this worries us all; but we also have other worries at the moment.

Facing the new path that appears to be opening now before the Cuban people, with all its risks and its benefits, our people, believers for the most part, must turn their gaze to God and place their future in the hands of merciful Jesus. The Holy Father will invite them to do just that. Therein lies our hope. Pope Francis will come to spread hope among us. It is no more than trusting in the action of a merciful God who will help us in the future to overcome these risks and to discover, also with His help, that the benefits can outweigh the risks on this new path opening before us, if we are capable of making room in our lives for God.

This must free our families and our young people from the paralyzing skepticism, that is alien to the Christian faith and in which God is never present. The Pope comes to tell us something new in this new moment of our history. This is surely the presentiment of the people of Cuba as they wait for Pope Francis.

I am certain that those who welcome him with an attitude of faith, as one who comes in the name of the Lord, will not be disappointed. It’s true that the people of Cuba want progress and prosperity to the fair benefit of all, but not only that; on the spiritual level our people long for stable love and endurance in the family, for peace in the life of the family and the nation. In short, they long to enjoy a life of reconciliation and happiness. This is not a hopeless yearning, so long as in our hearts we do not forget that God is the giver of every good thing and that in Him nothing is impossible.

Pope Francis comes precisely for this reason, that we do not forget this, that we do not forget God, and he will be welcomed by our people with devotion and love. His presence in Cuba will leave an indelible mark, of this I am certain. 

by Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, Cardinal Archbishop of Havana

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