We have recently observed another in a rather impressive string of papal triumphs. I’m speaking of Benedict XVI’s trip to Mexico and Cuba. The crowds were large and the reception warm. I am sure that few of us will soon forget seeing our German pope wearing a Mexican sombrero. As always the Pope’s message was direct and truthful and filled with love. 

There were, however, some things that made this visit different from others, things that left the meaning of the Pope’s visit more ambiguous than usual. These occurred primarily on the Cuban leg of the Pope’s journey. In the last steadfastly communist dictatorships in the world, the government apparently did all that was within its power to prevent any signs of anti-government sentiment from being broadcast or hitting the newspapers. This involved arresting devout Catholics and others whom it considers to be dissidents.  

It seems that these people were kept more or less under lock and key until the Pope and the media were gone and things had returned to the Cuban version of normal. I read that, at every one of the Masses celebrated by the Pope in Cuba, at least one dissident was dragged off by the police. What a disturbing contrast that must have been: the soft-spoken and gentle Benedict XVI trying to bring the message of Christ’s love to the Cuban people at the same time that coercive force and even violence were being used on some of the people who came to hear that message. 

All this is sad and disappointing. Such actions are the efforts of a regime living on borrowed time desperately trying to maintain its control over a population they have oppressed for more than half a century, a population that is increasingly determined to gain its freedom. It was also a missed opportunity for the Cuban government. They wanted to show the world that they had made some progress towards tolerance and perhaps even democracy. What they succeeded in doing was demonstrating exactly the opposite. Their clumsy attempt to choreograph a beautiful scene to display to the world only emphasized how bleak the cause of human rights — and especially religious rights — remains in this last committed outpost of communism. It showed their continual refusal to face reality and accept that their time is over, that history has passed them by and proved them wrong. 

I can’t help but find it an interesting coincidence that this papal visit took place during a time when Catholics in the United States are more concerned (read worried) about religious freedom than we have been for generations. As Cuba’s anti-Christian government holds on by a thread, our own government seems determined to expand its power over religion. Here it seems that freedom of religion is being transformed into mere freedom of worship, that religious faith is being banished from the public square and imprisoned in churches and synagogues from which it is not supposed to emerge. It seems there are those who will only tolerate religious faith if that faith is so private as to have no effect on the real world. Of course religion detached from morality becomes inconsequential. 

So perhaps we should pay some attentions to the lessons of a country like Cuba. They show what can happen when faith is not permitted to have a voice in public life, when God is made illegal or confined exclusively to man’s inner life. The history of Cuba, a land so close to our own shores, continues to be a sad and disturbing one. Our Holy Father’s visit put a spotlight on the bleak landscape of a country that has banished God. It should make us all the more determined to make sure that nothing like that ever happens here. TP 

Father Groeschel is the director for the Office of Spiritual Development of the Archdiocese of New York and professor of pastoral psychology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York. He is also a founding member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.