By KATHERINE CORCORAN | Associated Press
Pope Benedict XVI donated the collection from a Holy Thursday Mass to a Cuban orphanage—a gesture seen here as a sign the Roman Catholic Church wants to be a key moral force in Cuba’s future.
On the heels of a historic leadership change and a high-level diplomatic visit from the Vatican, Benedict’s nod to Cuba is the latest example of how the church and this communist government have taken small, quiet steps toward healing a once-adversarial relationship.
“It shows that the pope is in tune with Cuba and understands where it is going ... and that the visit and declarations of (Cardinal Tarcisio) Bertone were more than just diplomacy,” said Aurelio Alonso, a Cuban academic who studies the church’s influence. “It was an important gesture at a very important moment in time.”
While the church needs government permission to expand its social and educational role, the Cuban government sees it as a moral compass amid drifting values and a search for a national identity, church observers say. And good relations with the church help rehabilitate Cuba’s image worldwide.
Discussions between Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state, and new president Raul Castro last month touched on political prisoners in Cuba and Cubans jailed for spying in the United States. Bertone also publicly reiterated the Vatican’s long-held position that the U.S. embargo against Cuba is “ethically unacceptable.”
“In my opinion, the church wants to exercise its role as a mediator” between Cuba and the outside world, said Enrique Lopez Oliva, a representative in Cuba of the Commission for the Study of the History of the Church in Latin America.
“The issue of prisoners is already on the table. And I have no doubt that the pope will bring up the issue of Cuba with President Bush in April when he visits Washington.”
Cuban church officials dismissed any political significance in the pope’s donation to the Golden Age orphanage in Havana, noting that it’s something the pope does every Holy Week, choosing a different country each time.
But they agreed that the Cuban church’s relationship with the government is improving, and that Bertone’s visit helped.
“The communication is more fluid,” said Archbishop Dionisio Garcia in the eastern city of Santiago.
The church is seeking official status, specifically unlimited access to news media and the reopening of Catholic schools, which were expropriated after the revolution nearly 50 years ago.
The Cuban government has not officially responded to the request, but for months has been giving the church—without fanfare—regular drips of latitude.
A Catholic seminary in Havana is the first being built since the revolution. The government has recently allowed foreign students to attend Mass in a public medical school. And it has let churches teach nonreligious classes in subjects such as languages and computers and expand charity programs such as elderly day care.
Most significantly, the state televised Bertone’s Mass from Havana’s cathedral plaza, and the Communist Party newspaper Granma published a letter from Cuba’s Council of Bishops congratulating Castro for opening up dialogue in the country.