By Msgr. Owen F. Campion - OSV Newsweekly, 4/8/2012
Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba was the second time in 20 years that a pontiff has been to the island-nation, once considered staunchly Catholic, but where Catholicism has been severely tested since Fidel Castro, an avowed Marxist, took the government by force 53 years ago.
A great day came in January 1946 when Pope Pius XII received the archbishop of Havana into the College of Cardinals, the archbishop becoming the first Cuban in the island’s Christian history of more than 400 years to be so honored.
Cardinal Manuel Arteaga y Betancourt, born in Cuba in 1879 and named Havana’s archbishop in 1941, always was seen as a gentle and compassionate man. He died in 1963 after seeing Castro’s revolution in many respects disturb, or destroy, much of the Church that he had known and served.
He opposed Castro’s policies to the extent that, not long before his death, for his own safety, he had to flee from his residence and take refuge in the Argentine embassy in Havana. (He eventually was able to leave embassy.)
Resisting tyranny was nothing new to Cardinal Arteaga — nor was paying a price for being outspoken in the face of tyranny. He was equally firm in opposing the regime of dictator Fulgencio Batista, Castro’s predecessor, as he was in resisting Castro. Thugs, surely acting as friends of Batista, invaded his home in 1953 and beat him, leaving him seriously injured.
This was the kind of man, and of priest and bishop, the cardinal was. He never ceased to speak for the dignity and the rights of people, regardless of the risk. He also never lost the instinct of gentleness and compassion that people had seen as characteristic of him since the early days of the priesthood.
Ironically, this compassion played an important part in a chain of events that ultimately climaxed when Castro seized control of the country following the revolution that Castro led against Batista in 1959.
Castro had battled against Batista for some years. For much of the time, this activity meant armed resistance against the government, but actually it was guerilla resistance, with Castro’s leading, or being a part of, scattered, small bands of armed insurrectionists operating as much as possible in secret. They hid in the mountains and in tropical forests, venturing into the open hoping only to frustrate Batista’s more organized and better equipped soldiers.
Once, Batista’s soldiers captured Castro. Brought to trial for the treason of resisting Batista, he was sentenced to die. His execution was scheduled. Knowing Cardinal Arteaga’s reputation for being compassionate, and realizing the people’s regard for the cardinal, Castro’s wife went to Cardinal Arteaga. Pleading that her husband was a good man, a Catholic, a member of a Catholic family, and a man with his own family, she implored the cardinal to beg for her husband’s life.
Cardinal Arteaga did as she asked. While the cardinal was not exactly popular with the Batista regime, he had behind him the esteem of the people. The government relented and commuted Castro’s death sentence. As a result, Castro began what was supposed to be a long imprisonment. He escaped from prison, however, and the rest is history.
Stories coming from Cuba these days give cause for hope. Blessed Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba in 1998, and his personal meeting with Fidel Castro resulted in a certain relaxation in restrictions on the Church.
Many say that Pope Benedict's visit is reason for further hope. The best story is that the Catholicity of so many Cubans still lives. Their faith should lead us American Catholics to pause, to think and to recommit ourselves.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.
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