Pope pushes for religious freedoms in Cuba and Mexico
To ignite the Catholic Church’s new evangelisation efforts and expand its institutional freedoms.
In a historic visit to Cuba and Mexico this week, Pope Benedict XVI tried to ignite the Catholic Church’s new evangelisation efforts and expand its institutional freedoms in countries long marked respectively by Communism and anticlericalism.
After spending three days in central Mexico in an area bloodied by homicidal violence linked to drug cartels, the Pope concluded his visit by thanking its Communist Government for allowing Catholics to practise their faith more “openly and publicly” in the past several years. But he said the Church need even more freedoms – specifically to teach in schools and universities – if it is to fulfil its mission and contribute to society.
On Wednesday in Cuba, at Mass before hundreds of thousands of people in Havana’s Revolution Square, he said, “It is greatly to be hoped that the moment will soon arrive when, here too, the Church can bring to the arenas of knowledge the benefits of the mission which the Lord entrusted to her and which she can never neglect.”
In both Spanish-speaking nations the Pope has insisted that society make a more prominent place for God – including greater freedoms for the Church – if it wants to develop in a truly human way. “When God is put aside, the world becomes an inhospitable place for people, and frustrates creation’s true vocation to be a space for the covenant – the ‘Yes’ to the love between God and humanity,” he said at a large outdoor Mass late on Monday in Santiago de Cuba attended by President Raúl Castro and other Communist officials.
“I am convinced that Cuba, at this moment of particular importance in its history, is already looking to the future, and thus striving to renew and broaden its horizons,” Pope Benedict said just hours earlier as he arrived in the country’s second largest city.
He called Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Cuba in 1998 a “breath of fresh air” that gave “new strength to the Church” and created a “new spirit of cooperation and trust” with the Government, but insisted “greater progress” was still necessary – “especially regarding the indispensable public contribution that religion is called to make in the life of society.” Those words were seen as public support for Havana’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega who has forged a warm working relationship with Mr Castro – even in the face of criticism – in an effort to gain rights for the Church to operate schools and freely broadcast its message through radio and television.
Pope Benedict said that he had come to Cuba as a “pilgrim of charity”, just as he had described himself as “a pilgrim of faith, of hope, and of love” when he arrived in Mexico the preceding Friday. Vatican officials insisted that in both countries his visits were “purely pastoral”. But there was a clear political dimension, too – a call for greater religious freedom with legal guarantees.
“It is to be hoped that in Mexico this fundamental right will continue to be strengthened, conscious that this right goes much further than mere freedom of worship,” declared the Pope’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone SDB, at an official dinner with President Felipe Calderón and the country’s bishops.
The president, who stands for re-election in June, flanked Pope Benedict from the moment he arrived in the Catholic bastion of Guanajuato State on his first day in the country. The region has torn apart and bloodied by violence related to drug wars and corruption, and the Pope sought to console its victims at the end of a large outdoor Mass last Sunday in León. “At this time when so many families are separated or forced to emigrate, when so many are suffering due to poverty, corruption, domestic violence, drug trafficking, the crisis of values and increased crime, we come to Mary in search of consolation, strength and hope,” he said at the Angelus. Afterwards he and Mr Calderon, who is staking his re-election campaign on his efforts to break the drug cartels, briefly greeted several survivors of drug-related attacks.
While in Mexico the Pope also urged the bishops of all the Americas to be courageous in the face of persecution, social exclusion or contempt and “limitations imposed on the freedom” of the Church’s mission. “I am reminded of the assemblies of the Synod of Bishops, where the participants applaud after an intervention by someone who exercises his ministry in particularly troubling situations for the Church’s life and mission,” he said at Sunday Vespers in León’s cathedral to representatives of the various episcopal conferences in the American hemisphere.
“The initiatives planned for the Year of Faith must be aimed at guiding men and women to Christ; his grace will enable them to cast off the bonds of sin and slavery, and to progress along the path of authentic and responsible freedom,” he said. He urged the bishops to “show great concern” for their seminarians and to “remain close” to their priests.
But he also said they should exercise “paternal admonition in response to improper attitudes” of the clergy. “It is not right that [the laity] should feel treated as if they hardly count in the Church,” he said. “It is important for pastors to ensure a spirit of communion reigns among priests, religious and the lay faithful, and sterile divisions, criticism and unhealthy mistrust are avoided,” he warned.
Both parts of the visit were partly overshadowed by polemics. In Mexico some criticised the Pope for not meeting victims of sexual abuse in the home country of the late Marcial Maciel, the disgraced founder of the Legionaries of Christ. In Cuba, on the other hand, human-rights activists were angered that Pope Benedict was to meet Fidel Castro but not victims of human-rights abuses at the hands of the Communist Government.
Source: The Tablet – Robert Mickens – 31 March 2012