Castro and the Church

Had a Catholic cardinal been without compassion, the world might never have heard of Fidel Castro, the Cuban Communist strongman who recently died.

This is what happened. In 1953, Castro, then a young man, was involved in a not-yet-successful rebellion against the incumbent government in Cuba. Government agents caught him. He was tried for treason and sentenced to die.

His wife at the time went to Havana’s archbishop, Cardinal Manuel Arteaga y Betancourt, and implored the cardinal to appeal for her husband’s life. The cardinal, who died in 1963, indeed asked that the young revolutionary’s life be spared. Castro’s sentence was reduced to life imprisonment. Then Castro escaped from prison.

The rest is history.

Fidel Castro’s relationship with the Church was tortured. He was born into a Catholic family. His mother was very devout. He was educated by Christian Brothers and by Jesuits.

On occasion, he praised his Jesuit teachers, yet when he came into power, he expelled the Jesuits from the country.

The Jesuits were not the only Catholic clergy and religious to feel the sharp edge of Castro’s heel when he seized power. He ran many priests and nuns out of the country. Others were jailed or severely restricted from pursuing their ministries.

Before Fidel took control of Cuba 60 years ago, the Catholic Church was responsible for a considerable network of schools, hospitals and social services. In many cases, institutions operated by the Church had served the people, most especially the poor and disadvantaged, since the Spanish first arrived on the island 500 years earlier.

All these facilities were closed. It was virtually impossible for a young man to be educated for the priesthood.

Attending Mass, strictly speaking, was allowed, but Cubans didn’t dare manifest any religious devotion lest they lose their jobs or worse.

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe now in print or digital.

Unlike European communist governments, however, Castro never broke formal diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Wonder of wonders, in 1998 he invited Pope John Paul II to visit Cuba, and the pope accepted the invitation. On the last day of his trip, the Holy Father celebrated Mass in a great plaza in Havana. Castro himself attended. Undaunted, in the very face of the dictator, John Paul II called for human rights for all Cubans, for respect for religious freedom and for free speech and democracy.

Fidel sat still and took it, but he allowed few freedoms afterward.

Then, Pope Benedict XVI was asked to come to Cuba, and he went. By that time, Fidel had relinquished control to his brother, Raul, who still serves as the country’s president. Benedict XVI also called a spade a spade when it came to human rights and freedom of religion.

More recently, Pope Francis visited Cuba, and Raul went to the Vatican. Impressed by the kindness of Pope Francis, Raul said that he, himself, might resume attending Mass, a practice that he, too, abandoned long ago. It is not known whether or not Raul has returned to the sacraments.

Nor is it known if Fidel died in the Church. Rumors circulated at the time of his death that he was reconciled with the Church before he died, that a priest was summoned, and that Castro went to confession, received Communion and was anointed. This, too, is unconfirmed. This much is certain. If Fidel asked to be received again into the Church, no priest would have refused him. The past, however terrible, however dreadful for the Church, would be regarded as past. Every priest would have seen in Fidel’s request, if it were made, the sight of the prodigal coming home.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.