[Austen Ivereigh in Havana] In a speech rich in powerful, if sometimes coded, messages, Pope Francis has arrived in Cuba urging the island along the path of reconciliation, while emphasizing the its nationalist, Christian, roots. As he did in his book on Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit, Francis spoke of Cuba’s soul, and linking together the island’s desire for sovereignty with its Christian roots.
At the heart of the speech was an call to political leaders on both sides of the Florida Straits to persevere on the path of reconciliation, not just for their own sakes but for the whole continent — and as an example to the world. Cuba, he said, was a “key” between north and south, east and west, whose “natural vocation” was to be “a point of encounter for all peoples to join in friendship”.
It was a carefully balanced speech which offended many Cuban exiles by asking Raúl Castro to greet his brother Fidel, but which can’t have pleased the Cuban government by referring to “all those who, for various reasons, I will not be able to meet” — which could be a veiled reference to political prisoners and exiles — while also greeting “Cubans dispersed throughout the world”, making clear that Cuba’s future must include all those alienated by poverty or ideology from their homeland.
There was a a clear call for great religious and other freedoms, as the Cuban bishops have long asked for. Francis spoke of renewing “bonds of cooperation and friendship, so that the Church can continue to support and encourage the Cuban people in its hopes and concerns, with the freedom, the means and the space needed to bring the proclamation of the Kingdom to the existential peripheries of society.”
Pope Francis went on to link the national devotion to Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre to the desire for independence, noting that it was the 100th anniversary of Cuba’s independence armies petitioning to have her declared ‘Patron of Cuba’.
In 2011, huge crowds turned out when the statue of Our Lady was toured through the towns of Cuba, in a sign of deep affection for this traditional devotion. “The growing devotion to the Virgin is a visible testimony of her presence in the soul of the Cuban people,” he said in a phrase that recalls his words in 1998 that neither communism nor neoliberalism represented the “soul” of the Cuban people.
The message was clear: Cuba’s future must be built on national Christian traditions. In case that wasn’t clear, he quoted José Martí – Cuba’s independence hero — against “the forever-dead system of groups and dynasties”, implying the need for Cuba’s politics to be renewed.
The speech ended with a reference to Cuba’s two blesseds (the island doesn’t yet have a saint): the first, a Cuban seminarian martyred in the Spanish Civil War, the other a missionary who gave his life for the poor.
[The full address follows]
Address of Pope Francis
Havana, International Airport José Martí
Saturday, 19 September 2015
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I thank you, Mr President, for your greeting and your kind words of welcome in the name of the government and the entire Cuban people. I also greet the authorities and the members of the diplomatic corps present at this ceremony.
My gratitude also goes to Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino, Archbishop of Havana, the Most Reverend Dionisio Guillermo García Ibáñez, Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba and President of the Episcopal Conference, the other bishops and all the Cuban people, for their warm welcome.
I thank, too, all those who worked to prepare for this Pastoral Visit. Mr President, I would ask you to convey my sentiments of particular respect and consideration to your brother Fidel. I would like my greeting to embrace especially all those who, for various reasons, I will not be able to meet, and to Cubans throughout the world.
This year of 2015 marks the eightieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Republic of Cuba and the Holy See. Providence today enables me to come to this beloved nation, following the indelible path opened by the unforgettable apostolic journeys which my two predecessors, Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI, made to this island. I know that the memory of those visits awakens gratitude and affection in the people and leaders of Cuba. Today we renew those bonds of cooperation and friendship, so that the Church can continue to support and encourage the Cuban people in its hopes and concerns, with the freedom, the means and the space needed to bring the proclamation of the Kingdom to the existential peripheries of society.
This Apostolic Journey also coincides with the first centenary of Pope Benedict XV’s declaration of our Lady of Charity of El Cobre as Patroness of Cuba. It was the veterans of the War of Independence who, moved by sentiments of faith and patriotism, wanted the Virgen mambisa to be the patroness of Cuba as a free and sovereign nation. Since that time she has accompanied the history of the Cuban people, sustaining the hope which preserves people’s dignity in the most difficult situations and championing the promotion of all that gives dignity to the human person. The growing devotion to the Virgin is a visible testimony of her presence in the soul of the Cuban people. In these days I will have occasion to go to El Cobre, as a son and pilgrim, to pray to our Mother for all her Cuban children and for this beloved nation, that it may travel the paths of justice, peace, liberty and reconciliation.
Geographically, Cuba is an archipelago, facing all directions, with an extraordinary value as a “key” between north and south, east and west. Its natural vocation is to be a point of encounter for all peoples to join in friendship, as José Martí dreamed, “regardless of the languages of isthmuses and the barriers of oceans” (La Conferencia Monetaria de las Repúblicas de América, in Obras escogidas II, La Habana, 1992, 505). Such was also the desire of Saint John Paul II, with his ardent appeal: “May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself to the world, and may the world open itself to Cuba” (Arrival Ceremony, 21 January 1998, 5).
For some months now, we have witnessed an event which fills us with hope: the process of normalizing relations between two peoples following years of estrangement. It is a sign of the victory of the culture of encounter and dialogue, “the system of universal growth” over “the forever-dead system of groups and dynasties” (José Martí, loc. cit.). I urge political leaders to persevere on this path and to develop all its potentialities as a proof of the high service which they are called to carry out on behalf of the peace and well-being of their peoples, of all America, and as an example of reconciliation for the entire world.
I place these days under the protection of our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, Blessed Olallo Valdés and Blessed José López Pietreira, and Venerable Félix Varela, the great promoter of love between Cubans and all peoples, so that our bonds of peace, solidarity and mutual respect may ever increase.
Once again, thank you, Mr. President.