Pope Francis sets out from Rome at 10:15 a.m. (local time) on Saturday morning, Sept. 19, aboard an Alitalia A330 airbus, on his 10th foreign journey. He will visit Cuba and the United States, two countries where he is already highly esteemed and considered as a friend, not least because of the crucial role he played in helping them overcome 54 years of hostility and normalize relations.
Besides this common link in his visit to both countries, there are also a few other commonalities that may be worth mentioning. There’s the fact that he has never been to either country before. (He was once at Havana’s international airport, but only for an hour, on transit from Mexico City to Buenos Aires, and he has never even passed through a U.S. airport.) And yet, this first pope from the Americas is very keen to meet and dialogue with both peoples, something he will have a chance to do in the coming days.
He also desires to share with them “the joy of the Gospel,” by word and, wherever possible, by deeds. His unscripted, off-the-cuff remarks and surprise actions are now a stable factor in every papal visit, so we can expect both in Cuba and the United States. Above all, he is visiting each country, and their respective Catholic communities, as a pastor who is constantly promoting “the culture of encounter,” and ever advocating dialogue rather than confrontation. He comes to remind both Cubans and Americans that God is a God of mercy who wants to embrace everyone.
Seeds of Change in Cuba
Apart from these commonalities, his purpose and agenda in each country is very different. His visit to Cuba is less complex than the one to the United States, at several levels. He has no language barrier here, and he is Latin American like them. “We were filled with joy over having a Latin American pope. He was someone close to us,” the Cardinal-Archbishop of Havana, Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, wrote recently in the Vatican daily, L’Osservatore Romano.
Francis comes to Cuba as one who has a profound knowledge of what has happened in this land after Fidel Castro led a successful revolution in 1959, aided by an Argentinean—Ernesto “Che” Guevara. He studied and reflected on John Paul II’s historic visit to the country in 1998 and his relationship with Fidel, and wrote an insightful booklet on this subject that same year, “Dialogos Entre Juan Pablo II Y Fidel Castro,” which includes the 13 speeches of John Paul II and the two of Fidel. Bergoglio, who had just become archbishop of Buenos Aires, writes of his profound concern for the faith of the Cuban people then, his conviction of the fundamental importance of dialogue and the role the church can play in dialogue with governments. Like the rest of the Catholic Church leadership then and now, he too argued that the U.S. embargo should go because it causes so much suffering. (The booklet was re-published recently in Buenos Aires, by Editoriales Ciudad Argentina-Hispania Libros y la Universidad del Salvador).
Havana’s Cardinal Ortega said Francis is coming to a country that “has overcome isolation and distance, thanks also to the dialogue that the church and the popes of the 20th century fostered,” a dialogue that as pope he has “spurred and supported between the people and the governments of Cuba and the United States.”
The dialogue between John Paul II and Fidel Castro opened a new chapter in the relations between the state and a church that had suffered much in the early decades of the revolution. John Paul II sowed the seeds of change, Benedict XVI nurtured them during his 2012 sojourn and now Francis has made it possible for them to grow strong and flourish.
The Argentine pope is likely to be given a tremendous welcome when he comes to Cuba, not only by the 60 percent of the country’s 11 million inhabitants that have been baptized Catholic (though less than 10 percent are regular church-goers) but also by the rest of the population. The country has gone through particularly difficult times since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Emigration has taken its toll, as has the low birth rate, which has resulted in a rapidly declining and aging population. This is a major concern for both church and state.
Francis is “a missionary pope,” and he comes with “evangelical zeal” to this small country “to penetrate the hearts of men and women with the Gospel,” and “to spread hope” throughout the nation, Cardinal Ortega said. I expect we will see him in this mode when he talks to people in Havana, Holguin (the country’s third largest city where no pope has been) and Santiago de Cuba. He will seek to strengthen the faith of the island’s Catholics and inspire and encourage the church to be missionary and reach out to their fellow Cubans, and especially to those most in need. He will seek to get all Cubans to look with courage and hope to a new and better tomorrow.
An American Encounter
On Sept. 22, Pope Francis will say goodbye to President Castro and the islanders and take a three and a half hour flight from Santiago de Cuba to the United States, aboard the Alitalia airbus that brought him from Rome. President Obama and church leaders will welcome him on arrival at Andrews Airforce Base, outside Washington, D.C., at 4:00 p.m. local time.
The official welcome will take place at the White House next morning. It will mark the beginning of what promises to be a fascinating and inspiring visit by the first pope from the Americas. As has been evident from the day of his election, Francis is a pope who is committed to “the culture of encounter” and firmly believes that dialogue is the way to resolve problems. He is a great listener; he wants to go beyond the words people utter and understand what they are really feeling in the depths of their hearts. That is why he gives so much importance to personal meetings with world leaders, as well as with “the nobodies” of this world.
Sources say he wants very much to engage in a profound conversation with the American people, with their elected representatives in Congress (30.7 percent of whom are Catholic and almost evenly split between the two parties) and with the bishops who lead one of the largest Catholic communities in the world (one in every five Americans is a Catholic, and 34 percent of the Catholic population is Hispanic).
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, in a TV interview on the eve of the visit, confirmed that one of the topics Francis is sure to address during his visit is the situations of migrants; that is a constant concern of this pope, who is the son of immigrants, and of the church in the United States.
Contrary to what some have written, there is no reason to think that he is coming to slap people on the wrists, to wag his finger at anyone or to publicly reprimand them. He is a humble man. He does not set himself up as judge over anyone, nor does he give lessons from on high. That is just not his style. He always looks for the good in people, and the points of contact. He certainly challenges people too, but in a most respectful way. He exudes joy and hope. I expect this approach to be a hallmark of his visit and especially of the keynote talks he will give in Washington, D.C., to Congress and the U.S. bishops, in New York to the United Nations and in Philadelphia at the World Meeting with Families.
As is evident from his program, he is coming to the United States to extend the hand of friendship, to build bridges, to embrace people in different life situations, and especially to the poor and excluded—they are a priority for him, hence his meeting with the homeless in Washington, D.C., his visit to a school in Harlem and his encounter with prisoners in Philadelphia. One can also expect other meetings that are not on the official agenda, as we have seen happen on other foreign trips, such as his unscheduled visit to a Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka, or his prayer at the Israeli built wall (which they call a security fence) in Bethlehem that separates them from the Palestinians. This is “a pope of surprises,” a man who feels promoted by God’s Spirit to act in unexpected ways, that may even scandalize some. So watch out for surprises!
During his visit, Francis wants to communicate “the joy of the Gospel” to believers and non-believers alike in the United States, a joy he sees reflected in the Spanish missionary, Junipero Serra, whom he will canonize in Washington, D.C. He wants to support and strengthen the family and, above else, he ardently desires to help all Americans understand that God is first and foremost a “God of Mercy” who loves each and every human being, is not out to condemn people and never abandons anyone. He wants to encourage the church here, as he has done in other lands, to become a more missionary church, a field hospital that heals wounds, a church that has in its heart a special love and place for the poor and the outcast.
His program is intense. Interest is high in the man and what he has to say. His visit is sure to be memorable.