With the announcement of the Vatican’s involvement in the thawing of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, Pope Francis wrapped up 2014 with a dramatic exclamation point.
Living out his own call for a “culture of encounter,” the pontiff spent a portion of the last 18 months assisting U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro in chipping away at a humanitarian solution that would reconcile the neighboring nations and facilitate a peaceful release of prisoners on both sides. The deal also relaxed trade and travel restrictions between the countries and made allowances for a U.S. embassy in Havana.
Speaking to a group of nonresident ambassadors to the Holy See on Dec. 18, Pope Francis explained the diplomatic process in which he closely participated.
“The work of an ambassador is a job of taking small steps, doing small things but whose aim always is to build peace, to bring the hearts of people closer together and sow brotherhood between peoples,” the pope said. “And today we are all happy because yesterday we saw two nations, who were estranged for so many years, take a step to bring them closer together. This was achieved by ambassadors, by diplomacy.”
Among those closely involved was Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, who as a former apostolic nuncio to Venezuela brings an array of diplomatic knowledge to Pope Francis’ highly regarded diplomatic service. Cardinal Jaime Ortega, archbishop of Havana, helped pave the way, too, by establishing trust with the Cuban government.
‘We must do what Jesus does: encounter others.’
Helping bring about reconciliation between two countries at odds for more than a half-century put a slam-dunk on a year in which Pope Francis pushed his agenda of reform further into being, and it is a fitting segue into what promises to be a memorable 2015. As Austen Ivereigh writes in his news analysis this week (Page 5), “It is easy to imagine commentators this time next year lining up to give their verdict” on the pope’s “ambitious reforms.”
But while sorting out the Vatican Curia, finances and communications rank high on Francis’ list of priorities, they are trumped by the pope’s continuous call for dialogue, reconciliation and — most importantly — encounter in all situations of unrest around the world. “For me this word is very important. Encounter with others,” Pope Francis said in an address in May 2013. “Why? Because faith is an encounter with Jesus, and we must do what Jesus does: encounter others.”
In this sense, Cuba is a success story for not only Francis’ papacy but for his governing philosophy. It should be said, however, that it’s not unprecedented that a pope should help facilitate such a deal. The Church, historically, is an effective listener and student, which makes it an effective partner. In 1978, Pope St. John Paul II, for example, personally intervened in an escalating conflict between Argentina and Chile, brokering an agreement that eventually was signed six years later.
We’d be remiss, too, to overlook the roles played in Cuba by previous popes, especially Pope St. John Paul II, who visited Cuba in 1998, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who visited in March 2012. It was John Paul who famously said, “May Cuba open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba.” Benedict declared himself “totally in accord” with the words of his predecessor.
It is in this continuity, then, that Pope Francis, with the help of his skilled diplomatic arsenal, continues on his mission of dialogue and encounter — and after a series of small steps in Cuba, netted a big win.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor