By Jeff Runyan, FOCUS Missionary

If there was ever an experience of a real life time machine, perhaps taking a chartered flight from south Florida to Cuba would be it.  For spanning a relatively miniscule distance in which the flight barely reaches cruising altitude before it starts to descend, the two worlds that this machine bridges could not be more different, and in very concrete ways seem to exist in different decades.  Since Cuba’s 1959 communist revolution and subsequent trade embargo imposed by the United States, Cuba has seemingly been locked in time.  Navigating the streets of any Cuban city one can sense the splendor of times past.  Crumbling facades of brilliant architecture have not been touched since 1959.  And then there are the cars – before the revolution Havana had more Cadillacs per capita than any city in the world- those same cars from the 40’s and 50’s still provide fulltime transport to the lucky few that own them.  Analogous to the age of the buildings and cars is the governmental regime itself.  The Castro brothers – Fidel and Raúl- still dictate life in Cuba.  Their system of government – communist and totalitarian – likewise fits in with the universal theme of antiquation.  For any American that takes this journey the word that best describes the experience is “surreal.”

This past week, having taken this step back in time I found the journey particularly surreal.  I was blessed to travel with the Archdiocese of Miami to Cuba for the pastoral visit of His Holiness Benedict XVI.  After a whirlwind of a voyage – starting at flight check-in at the Miami International Airport where the international press corps had congregated (and yes I was interviewed and made a particular point to speak of the New Evangelization and FOCUS – the Fellowship Of Catholic University Students- on Colombian television), I found myself standing in a communist rally plaza in the midst of hundreds of thousands in Santiago de Cuba (Cuba’s second largest city in the eastern end of the island).  Like the rest of my Cuban brothers and sisters, I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI.  The giant plaza where the Papal Mass was to take place is studded by royal palm trees, an imposing monument to Cuba’s independence from Spain, and multitudes of flags.  I had seen this communist rallying stage on several previous trips to the island, but on this occasion there were some notable – nay iconic- differences.  Several large billboards declared “A Jesus por Maria” (to Jesus through Mary) and “La Caridad Nos Une” (Charity unites us – in reference to Our Lady of Charity for which the 400 year anniversary of her apparition in Cuba is being celebrated this year).  Most notably however was absence of the black and red “26 de Julio” communist flags that are found in particular concentrations in these plazas – in fact I didn’t see a single one of these flags throughout the whole trip.  The large flag pole that typically flies an exceeding large version of this flag was unoccupied and in another area of the plaza these flags were replaced by Vatican flags – an unthinkable show of hospitality.  On the far end of the plaza where Fidel and Raúl typically deliver their incendiary speeches a beautiful stage and altar were erected.  Initially my whole reaction to this scene was being filled with overwhelming hope.  None the less, small moments throughout the rest of my journey sobered my enthusiasm.  Not for the Holy Father’s message and what it would mean for Cuba, but for the reality of the state of the Church and people of Cuba.  Fortunately and unfortunately it became particularly notable that Cuba was on its best behavior for the Pope and therefore it was very difficult to gauge the actual authenticity behind the evident enthusiasm.

It doesn’t take much research to know that the history of religious freedom in Cuba has been dismal.  Immediately after the revolution, priests, clergy and faithful Catholics were harassed, jailed, tortured and even killed.  Over time as the revolutionary clock has wound down and the cold war come to an end, the acuteness of persecution has diminished – but certainly not disappeared.   The historical visit of John Paul II in 1998 brought about the first significant advancement in religious freedoms since the revolution.  With John Paul II’s visit Christmas became legal to celebrate – the first time in 39 years.  With the influence of John Paul II, small advancements in religious freedom have been made and were even slightly accelerated with the transfer of power from Fidel to Raúl.  Just two years ago it became legal to meet in groups of more than 10 without a government issued license (which was rarely if ever issued for any type of religious activity).  This all sets the stage for what was being hoped for with the visit of Benedict XVI.

As I stood under the tropical sun waiting for the Holy Father’s arrival I contemplated the realities of life in Cuba.  Empathizing but knowing that I could not fully grasp what the people that surrounded me cope with on a daily basis, I longed to understand.  For a foreigner, understanding the real political climate of Cuba is difficult.  Most everything that would indicate oppression is much hidden from a foreigners view especially as Cuba has made enormous strides to promote tourism in this gloriously beautiful country.  For a foreigner subtle observations are very necessary.  I watched the crowds very closely and noticed three types of people.  First, it was evident that there were large factions of very authentically enthusiastic attendees– these were faithful Catholics that knew the responses to Mass and were ecstatic that the Holy Father had come to visit.  Second there were those that were just genuinely curious about the spectacle (whether they were forced to attend or not I don’t know – for many government sponsored events attendance is compulsory).  Evidence of this faction came when some pulled out sandwiches during the Mass and carried on in jovial conversations during consecration. The third faction was the state security forces.  Some were obviously state police officers dawning slick guayabera dress shirts and earpieces  – but most were not in any kind of official uniform at all.  Evidence of who represented the state police came through how they carried themselves and particularly their refusal to speak to me when I tried to strike up a conversation (this was my first experience in all of Latin American of being given the “cold shoulder”- of course I made a particular point to embrace these individuals during the sign of peace).  When the Holy Father arrived, the first two factions exploded in enthusiasm and the third simply did their job of controlling the crowd.  Shortly after the arrival of the Holy Father, an announcement that the Commander in Chief, Raúl Castro Ruz was now also present – an announcement that drew cordial (and obviously trained) applauds.  It doesn’t get much more surreal than attending Mass with the Pope and Raul Castro in a communist plaza and then to hear the Holy Father close his Homily with these words, “ I appeal to you to reinvigorate your faith, that you may live in Christ and for Christ, and armed with peace, forgiveness and understanding, that you may strive to build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity, and which better reflects the goodness of God.”

After the Mass in Santiago de Cuba we went straight to the airport, boarded our chartered flight (with our plane sitting right next to “Shepard One” the Altalia Airlines 767 chartered for the Pope’s visit) and then took of for La Habana, where the Holy Father would celebrate a climatic Mass in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución.  In the capital, I once again witnessed history in the making.  In Havana’s colonial Cathedral, Archbiship Wenski of Miami was invited to celebrate Mass.  Everyone knew that in the spotlight of the international press, Archbishop Wenski - an outspoken opponent of communism and the Castro regime- would take full advantage of this opportunity to proclaim truth… and truth he did proclaim.  Provoking a palpable gasp, Archbishop Weski’s homily stated: “Ideological materialism, represented in this country and in those countries of what was the Eastern bloc, denied man's transcendence; it denied that that human person was created for more than just to die one day. As the Pope observed on his flight to Mexico, Marxism is a spent ideology. This caused a bit of a furor among the press corps; however, as Archbishop Dionisio Garcia observed, ‘the Pope's comments about Marxism didn't tell us anything we, in Cuba, didn't already know.’”  Despite the tropical heat I got the chills.  Furthermore during the homily a Cuban dissident started passing out fliers calling for freedom in Cuba – a boldness that probably landed him in jail.  Once again history was being made and I was humbled to be witnessing it firsthand.

Wednesday morning we made our way to Havana’s infamous Plaza of the Revolution.  In this setting the altar was set facing the daunting and iconic image of Che Gevara that occupies the entire edifice of a 13 story building.  Opposite of Che was the Holy Father himself and a massive image of Our Lady of Charity.  In the middle of these images were a sea of people seemingly battered and torn by the opposing ideologies that both sides represent.  The Holy Father, acutely aware of the battle at hand, spoke prophetically: “Dear friends, do not hesitate to follow Jesus Christ.  In him we find the truth about God and about mankind. He helps us to overcome our selfishness, to rise above our ambitions and to conquer all that oppresses us. The one who does evil, who sins, becomes a slave of sin and will never attain freedom (cf. Jn 8:34). Only by renouncing hatred and our hard and blind hearts will we be free and a new life will well up in us.”  I don’t know if I will ever be in a more profound circumstance to hear proclamation of authentic freedom.  The Holy Father then spoke directly to the communist government (again with Raúl Castro present). “The Church lives to make others sharers in the one thing she possesses, which is none other than Christ, our hope of glory (cf. Col1:27). To carry out this duty, she must count on basic religious freedom, which consists in her being able to proclaim and to celebrate her faith also in public, bringing to others the message of love, reconciliation and peace which Jesus brought to the world. It must be said with joy that in Cuba steps have been taken to enable the Church to carry out her essential mission of expressing her faith openly and publicly. Nonetheless, this must continue forwards, and I wish to encourage the country’s Government authorities to strengthen what has already been achieved and advance along this path of genuine service to the true good of Cuban society as a whole….Cuba and the world need change, but this will occur only if each one is in a position to seek the truth and chooses the way of love, sowing reconciliation and fraternity.”  As the Mass came to an end, I couldn’t help but reflect upon how much John Paul II must be interceding for Cuba in this moment.

As our trip in Cuba wrapped up, I made a particular point to glean the perceptions of many of the other pilgrims in our group – many of whom where political experts in Cuba.  Some shared with me that they learned many dissidents were jailed prior to the Pope’s arrival so that they might not provoke a scene in the eye of the international press (the press later confirmed this speculation).  Another pilgrim shared with me that as the Holy Father was departing a man standing next to him at Mass started imploring “Papa, papa no te vayas” (Don’t leave us Holy Father), but then said “Pero, cuando te vayas llévate el comunísmo contigo” (but when you do leave take communism away with you).  As was described by this pilgrim, a young man standing near him, dressed with Benedict XVI t-shirt and hat, grabbed the man, put him in a head lock, held his hand over his mouth and drug him away.  The man was obviously of the undercover state security forces and the man who made the comment will certainly face the draconian penalties that come with speaking freely in Cuba.

As I boarded our chartered flight at José Martí International Airport my feelings were convoluted.  Joy and sadness were mixed.  In the end the hospitality demonstrated by the communist government toward the Holy Father seemed more than anything like a façade to legitimize their regime as they were viewed in the international spotlight.  I hurt for the oppression of the people and for the prevention of truth being proclaimed in the island on a daily basis.  I hurt for my dear Cuban friends living without freedom.   On the other hand, knowing that God brings good out of every bad – even selfish intentions of communist dictators – I was overjoyed knowing that the Lord worked through the Holy Father’s visit.  There is no doubt that young Cubans were touched by the Holy Father’s words – remember it only took 12 Apostles to change the world.  I have no doubt that Cuba’s new disciples – the JPII generation- were present.  Perhaps Fidel Castro himself was touched – it is said that when he met with the Holy Father he recommended that he canonize Mother Teresa of Calcutta and John Paul II – this does not sound like typical words from a scathingly anti-Catholic dictator.  I was also particularly encouraged by several conversations I had with Mass attendees who genuinely exuded joy and enthusiasm for the Faith.

In sum, you cannot tell me that darkness did not tremble when the Gospel was proclaimed in the communist plazas… and you cannot tell me that darkness did not flee when the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was celebrated.  To quote Curtis Martin, the president and founder of FOCUS (the Fellowship of Catholic University Students), “When one turns on a light darkness has no capacity to maintain itself.  It instantly disappears.”  I pray that God’s glorious light continue to shine in Cuba! 

Click here for more pictures of Jeff's trip to Cuba.