Contrast: Francis in Cuba and John Paul II in Poland

Update: since this post, the pope has spoken to this topic on his flight on the way to America

Pope Francis has just visited Cuba. Much can be said about Cuba and Catholicism, more than I want to discuss in this post, but it should be noted that Cuba was once extremely Catholic…that is, before the Castro brothers took it over and turned it into a Communist nightmare. Now only less than 5% of the country is Catholic– the Castros destroyed scores of churches and placed many obstacles in the way of living a life of faith. Even with the destruction of the Church during the reign of the Castros, tens of thousands managed to show up at the papal Masses held in Revolution Square…where the Word of God was juxtaposed alongside a giant image of the violent Marxist revolutionary and atheist Che Guevara.

National Catholic Register
Credit: National Catholic Register

It is important he went to Cuba. The people there need to know they are not forgotten and that hope exists for them because there is a loving King that that reigns above their oppressive human rulers. However, I cannot help but wonder why Francis doesn’t seem to have more powerful words for the leadership there considering that he seems to position himself as the pope of modern social justice and human rights.

It shouldn’t be ignored that the pope made some veiled statements about the state of their affairs, he mentioned going against “ideology” and called people to imitate Mary’s revolution of tenderness”. But overall the pontiff seemed to remain fairly passive.

Credit: National Catholic Register
“St. Peter and the Devil” – Credit: National Catholic Register

Francis attempted a powerful gesture by personally inviting 24 political dissidents to one of his Cuban Masses. But only 22 of them were able to make it because they “were prevented from doing so by Cuban security officials.” Quoting more from the Telegraph article:

Two well-known dissidents, Marta Beatriz Roque and Miriam Leiva, had been invited by the Vatican to attend a vespers service led by the Pope’s in Havana’s historic baroque cathedral.

But they said they were detained by security agents and barred from attending the event.

“They told me that I didn’t have a credential and that I couldn’t go to the Pope’s event that was taking place there in the plaza of the Cathedral,” Ms Roque said.

She said that she and Ms Leiva had also been invited by the Vatican to meet Pope Francis at the residence of the Holy See’s ambassador to Cuba shortly after the pontiff’s arrival on Saturday, but that they were detained on that occasion as well.

So did Francis speak out about this insult not only to him but to the dignity of these women? No, at least not in any way big enough to be reported anywhere. The Roman Catholic Church is supposed to be the moral authority in the world and the pope is supposed to be the leader of that message in civilization. Let’s contrast this complete lack of moral stance to when Pope John Paul II visited his homeland of Communist Poland for the first time since being elected pope in June 1979.

JPII held Mass in Victory Square in Warsaw. The Communist party didn’t want to spark an uprising by not allowing the wildly popular first Polish pope to speak in his own country, but they also tried to set rules for the pontiff and wanted him to keep the rhetoric down so there was no disruption with their power over the people there. The Communist elite wanted the people to see that “it did it did not alter their capacity to govern, oppress, and distribute the goods of society.” But from the moment the pope stepped off his plane in Warsaw and kissed the ground, “he began the process by which Communism in Poland—and ultimately elsewhere in Europe—would come to an end” according to Cold War historian John Gaddis.

The pope, while not being overtly confrontational to the government and “without firing a shot”, transcended politics and shook this oppressed group of people to their core. From Wikipedia:

He told them to be good, not to compromise themselves, to stick by one another, to be fearless, and that God is the only source of goodness, the only standard of conduct. ‘Be not afraid,’ he said.

Millions shouted in response, ‘We want God! We want God! We want God!’

The regime cowered. Had the Pope chosen to turn his soft power into the hard variety, the regime might have been drowned in blood. Instead, the Pope simply led the Polish people to desert their rulers by affirming solidarity with one another.

What contrast in a situation that has many parallels!

I love Pope Francis. I think he’s a true man of Christ. But something is askew when a murderous Communist country feels like they get a pass from earth’s moral authority (the Church) while countries with far more liberating economic policies are to feel like they are inherently flawed and selfish (to be clear: I am just referring to economic policy, not other issues plaguing Western society).

Francis could have had his own JPII moment but he let it pass. I fully understand there may have been many circumstances that I am not aware of, he certainly deserves the benefit of the doubt, especially from a flawed man like myself. But you know what? I am growing tired of always having to give him the benefit of the doubt.

His message in his American trip this week is going to be a big deal. Although very different from Cuba, we have our own huge issues that need to be addressed by the Roman Catholic Church. Will he speak to these issues…or will I be giving him the benefit of the doubt again?

Pope John Paul II waves to people in people gathered to see him in Poland, 1983 (CNS file photo by Arturo Mari)
Pope John Paul II waves to people in people gathered to see him in Poland, 1983 (CNS photo Arturo Mari)