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The Pope in Revolution Square

Nina Shea

In Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution today, Pope Benedict gave a powerful sermon reflecting on truth, freedom, faith, and reason, and their meaning for Cuba, as Kathryn mentioned. These are recurrent themes in Benedict’s preaching but they have a particular resonance in the context of the Castro brothers’ militantly secular Cuba.

Sermons traditionally are based on Biblical readings and, for the Catholic Mass, these readings are selected by Vatican authorities years in advance. That is, today’s readings were selected long before the Cuban was confirmed. Providentially then, Benedict was able to expound on some very relevant material.

Today’s readings, by themselves, must have made Raul Castro, sitting in the front row, squirm.

The first reading (Daniel 3:14-20, 91-92, 95) was the Old Testament story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Negs, who “defied the order of the king” and were thrown into a fiery furnace as punishment. As the pope put it: “The three young men persecuted by the Babylonian king preferred to face death by fire rather than betray their conscience and their faith.”

At that moment, images of the Ladies in White, their imprisoned loved ones, Dr. Oscar Biscet, Elizardo Sanchez, and Cuba’s legions of other persecuted dissidents over the past half-century must have been in the forefront of everyone’s minds.

From the Castros’ perspective, the other reading was even worse. It included Jesus’ exhilarating words, “the truth will set you free.“ (John 8:31-42.)

Using Lenten themes, again beckoning thoughts of the political prisoners and dissidents, the Pope began by reflecting on truth and criticizing those explicitly governing authorities who disparage truth’s existence, embrace relativism, or, alternatively, fanatically impose on others “their truth,” beating and bloodying those who disagree. Though no names were mentioned, he unmistakably identified the Castros with Pontius Pilate and the fanatics who crucified Jesus Christ. Who listening was not thinking of the Castros and their thugs? He preached:

The truth is a desire of the human person, the search for which always supposes the exercise of authentic freedom. Many, however, prefer shortcuts, trying to avoid this task. Some, like Pontius Pilate, ironically question the possibility of even knowing what truth is (cf. Jn 18:38), proclaiming that man is incapable of knowing it or denying that there exists a truth valid for all. This attitude, as in the case of skepticism and relativism, changes hearts, making them cold, wavering, distant from others and closed. They, like the Roman governor, wash their hands and let the water of history drain away without taking a stand.

On the other hand, there are those who wrongly interpret this search for the truth, leading them to irrationality and fanaticism; they close themselves up in ‘their truth,’ and try to impose it on others. These are like the blind scribes who, upon seeing Jesus beaten and bloody, cry out furiously, “Crucify him!” (cf. Jn 19:6). Anyone who acts irrationally cannot become a disciple of Jesus. Faith and reason are necessary and complementary in the pursuit of truth. God created man with an innate vocation to the truth and he gave him reason for this purpose. Certainly, it is not irrationality but rather the yearning for truth which the Christian faith promotes.

The pontiff then directly honored those who dissent, validating their choice. Unmistakably too, they were to be compared to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, who, as he had said early in the sermon,“God never abandons his children, he never forgets them.” Benedict declared:

Each human being has to seek the truth and to choose it when he or she finds it, even at the risk of embracing sacrifices.

Toward the end, Benedict turned to the need for “basic religious freedom” in Cuba. He recognized “with joy” that some steps have already been taken to allow the Church to express faith “openly and publicly.” (As I wrote on Monday, the Cuban Catholic Church is no longer the marginalized relic that Pope John Paul II found when he visited in 1988. However, the long decades of enforced atheism has taken a toll. For over half a century, the Communist regime has banned religious education, schools and broadcasting in the country. Before today’s Mass, the regime ran public service messages explaining what the Mass and a priest are.) The pope, then, made a direct appeal to the dictator in front of him: 

I wish to encourage the country’s government authorities to strengthen what has already been achieved and advance along this path of genuine service to the true good of Cuban society as a whole.

He explained the Church’s need to “give witness by her preaching and teaching” the Gospel message:

The right to freedom of religion, both in its private and in its public dimension, manifests the unity of the human person, who is at once a citizen and a believer. It also legitimizes the fact that believers have a contribution to make to the building up of society. Strengthening religious freedom consolidates social bonds, nourishes the hope of a better world, creates favorable conditions for peace and harmonious development, while at the same time establishing solid foundations for securing the rights of future generations.

When the Church upholds this human right, she is not claiming any special privileges for herself. She wishes only to be faithful to the command of her divine founder, conscious that, where Christ is present, mankind becomes more human and founds its consistency. This is why the Church seeks to give witness by her preaching and teaching, both in catechesis and in schools and universities. It is greatly to be hoped that the moment will soon arrive when, here too, the Church can bring to the arenas of knowledge the benefits of the mission which the Lord entrusted to her and which she can never neglect.

Will his words have any effect, either on the Communist authorities or on the long-suffering Cuban people? More than half a million crowded the plaza for the papal mass. Some were forced to attend by the regime, which probably was trying to avoid a John Paul II-in-Poland moment. When cheering throngs of the Polish faithful turned out to greet the pope in 1979, they drew courage from seeing two million others there who thought just like them, and that was the beginning of the end for Eastern-bloc Communism.

After three generations of tight Communist rule, some Cubans are beyond reaching. Proving the need for the Pope’s appeal for the rights to religious education and broadcasting, like nothing else could, one told the AP: “I don’t understand this Mass at all. I don’t have an education in these things and I know nothing about religion,” said Mario Mendez, a 19-year-old communications student. “On top of that, I can’t hear anything.”

Knowing they are not forgotten by the outside world, no doubt many will be inspired and encouraged including those dragged away and arrested before and during the papal visit.

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