Benedict XVI in Cuba
A retrospective, with lessons for the next conclave.

Pope Benedict XVI at mass in Santiago de Cuba


George Weigel

Counter-Signs and Missing Symbols
These were profoundly challenging words of truth, deftly crafted, and delivered with calm assurance by a figure of indisputable moral authority in the face of the regime and its leadership. But virtually all that wisdom was undercut by the photos the next day of Benedict XVI in conversation with Fidel Castro. The Catholic Church has some two millennia of experience with the crucial importance of symbols and signs in the proclamation of the truth; the pope’s men seemed virtually clueless about that “sacramental” dimension of Catholicism in planning and executing the papal visit to Cuba.

In the run-up to the visit, the papal nuncio, or ambassador, celebrated a Mass at the Havana cathedral with the cardinal archbishop of the city, Jaimé Ortega, for the healing of Hugo Chávez, a persecutor of the Venezuelan Church, then in Cuba for medical treatment; both Chávez and Raúl Castro, neither noted for public displays of piety in recent decades, were present. The Ladies in White, the most prominent of all Cuban civil-society groups, requested a meeting with the pope during a session with the nuncio; 70 members of the group were subsequently arrested and others were beaten. Just before the pope arrived, Cuban dissidents frustrated by the Vatican’s unwillingness to announce that the pope would meet with members of Cuban civil society occupied a church in Havana; Cardinal Ortega had the police remove the demonstrators, and his ham-handed archdiocesan spokesman criticized the demonstrators for politicizing the papal visit — as if the impending papal pilgrimage would take place on some planet devoid of politics. Throughout the pope’s time in Cuba, cell-phone communication among civil-society dissidents was interrupted by the regime in order to make organizing more difficult; almost 200 pro-democracy leaders were arrested; and on the pope’s second day in Cuba, Cuban internal security texted several known dissidents a warning that, after the pope left, “you will be disappeared.” All of this was known, almost as it happened, throughout the world; it is inconceivable that the attack on dissidents during the papal visit was not known to the nunciature in Havana and to the papal party, and yet there were no public denunciations of the regime’s police-state tactics of intimidation and brutalization, nor was the regime challenged by a papal meeting with Cuban democrats.

To the contrary: Asked at the end of the visit why the pope had not met with the Ladies in White and other civil-society dissidents, the Holy See’s sometimes-hapless press spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J., made matters worse by replying that the Vatican, in planning such a visit, had to take account of the wishes of the public authorities about the pope’s program.

That, however, was not John Paul II’s view of the matter. Prior to the second papal visit to Poland, which took place in 1983 during martial law, the regime insisted that the pope could not meet with Lech Wałesa, the imprisoned Solidarity leader; the pope insisted on the meeting and threatened to leave early if the meeting were not arranged; and the meeting took place. And if it be countered that, well, Benedict XVI is not a Cuban returning to his own country, then it should be remembered that John Paul II did precisely the same thing in Chile in 1987, when, much to the aggravation of the Pinochet regime, he had a lengthy meeting (arranged by local Catholic authorities) with the Chilean democratic opposition.

On the last day of Benedict XVI’s Cuban visit, when there was still hope that a previously unannounced papal meeting with civil-society representatives might be held, Vatican sources suggested that efforts had been made to arrange such an encounter, but that those efforts had been systematically thwarted by the regime. Assuming that was indeed the case, the claim nonetheless raises more questions than it answers.

If the pope was being prevented from meeting members of his flock whom he wanted to meet, why was a doddering and slightly gaga Fidel Castro granted a half-hour of the pope’s time? Couldn’t the Vatican planners have used the regime’s desire for an obvious propaganda photo-op as leverage to dismantle the obstacles the regime had put in the way of a papal meeting with pro-democracy Catholics and other civil-society representatives?