January 21 marks the 25th anniversary of Saint John Paul II’s historic visit to Cuba. Pope Francis is sending Cardinal Stella as a special representative for the celebrations on the island.
Saint John Paul II’s visit to Cuba, from January 21 – 25 1998, was the first by a Pope to Cuba, the only country in the Western Hemisphere with a social, economic and political system based on Marxism.
Christians in Cuba were a small group that had kept the faith in an adverse environment, which occasionally turned openly hostile. Almost 40 years after the triumph of the Cuban revolution, on 1 January 1959, many people were still afraid to go to churches or to express their faith openly, for fear of being marginalised.xistence
Being from Eastern Europe, the Polish Pope understood better than most what it meant to grow up in a Marxist system and the difficulties this posed for the faithful of the Catholic Church. The Apostolic visit to Cuba was aimed at confirming the Cuban Christians in their faith.
A quarter of a century later Father Ariel Suarez, secretary of the Cuban Bishops’ Conference, recalls the fruits of that historic event. “Saint John Paul II’s visit made it possible for many to get back to their Christian roots, to rediscover the reality of the Church, which had not left Cuba, and was part of the people, living its vocation to serve”.
“The Pope came to strengthen the missionary role of the Church in Cuba, which felt called by our Lord Jesus Christ to evangelise and serve everyone, with its own identity and mission”, the young priest says, in a conversation with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
One of the most symbolic fruits of the visit was the re-establishment of a public holiday on 25 December and the crowning of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre as Queen and patron of Cuba. These remain indelible memories in the heart of the Cuban Catholic Church. However, Pope John Paul II’s meeting with the Cuban people went much further, bringing a breath of fresh air to a Church that was doomed to live its faith behind the closed doors of its temples, many of which were in a state of disrepair.
Father Ariel says that John Paul II’ speeches, gestures and “the witness of a man tested by pain and illness” marked a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ for Cuban Catholics.
“Those memorable days gave a new boost to catechesis, to the adult catechumenate, to Caritas’ social work. Diocesan libraries and publications were consolidated, villages and cities started holding regular processions again, especially around feast days. Family and prison ministry gained ground, and ecumenical relations deepened”, the priest tells ACN.
The world has changed since then, but the situation in the Caribbean country remains worrying. Cuba is going through a deep economic, social and humanitarian crisis. As with other countries, the pandemic and inflation raised poverty levels and the country is haemorrhaging youth. According to media reports emigration to the USA – legal or illegal – hit record numbers in 2022.
In the midst of all this turmoil the Christian community is no stranger to the atmosphere of uncertainty and vulnerability that engulfs the country, and the Church also lacks the economic and human resources to carry out its pastoral work.
Pope Francis sent a message to the Cuban faithful to mark the anniversary of John Paul’s visit, and will sending Cardinal Beniamino Stella, who was Apostolic Nuncio to Cuba at the time, as his representative. According to available information, Cardinal Stella will be visiting all the dioceses of Cuba from January 24 to February 9.
In his message, Pope Francis describes the 1998 Apostolic visit to Cuba as “a moment of grace and blessing for everyone” and recalls words by Saint John Paul II to Cuban faithful which continue to ring true 25 years later. “With fortitude and temperance, with justice and prudence, face the great challenges of the present moment; return to your Cuban and Christian roots, and do all that you can to build a future of ever greater dignity and freedom! Do not forget that freedom involves responsibility. A person is defined above all by his responsible behaviour towards others and before history”. (Message to the young people of Cuba, 23 January 1998).
Father Ariel believes that the 25th anniversary presents an opportunity to “gratefully remember that moment of grace” and asks for prayers that, bearing in mind the concrete current situation, the celebrations may be a “providential occasion for renewing trust that the Lord is with his people and counts on us to replenish hope, proclaim the Good News of salvation and build a future of harmony, calm, joy and peace so that all Cubans, without exception, feel called to build a better future.”