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CUBA: Catholics Celebrate ‘Festival of the Spirit’

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Feb 21 2008 (IPS) - Eighty-two-year-old Alba Osorio feels as though she were 50 again. A true survivor, 10 years after the late Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba, she is now running back and forth from her house to the parish church, getting ready for what she regards as a new “festival of the spirit.”

“I never thought I’d get close to a pope, and I stood close to John Paul II. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. Now I’m preparing for an open-air mass all over again, in the same Cathedral Square,” Osorio, who still teaches catechism to the children of her parish, told IPS.

The mass, expectantly awaited by Catholics in Cuba, will be celebrated by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state, who arrived in Cuba Wednesday night for a pastoral and official visit, at the invitation of the Cuban government and the Cuban Catholic Bishops Conference (COCC).

Organised to commemorate Pope John Paul’s (1920-2005) January 1998 visit to this socialist Caribbean island nation, Bertone’s visit is the first by a high-level foreign dignitary since President Fidel Castro, who temporarily stepped aside for health reasons on Jul. 31, 2006, announced Tuesday that he was permanently resigning as president.

Cardinal Bertone will not only be the first representative of a foreign state to meet with acting president Raúl Castro and other high-ranking Cuban officials under the present circumstances, but will also be celebrating open-air masses for all comers, which are expected to attract thousands of people.

“It won’t be the same as when the pope came, but it’s still very important to us. Celebrating mass in the streets is in itself a great event,” said Gustavo Ramírez, a 38-year-old Catholic, in whose view the most important aspect is “the opportunity to gain new ground for the Church’s work in the community.”

“May Cuba open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba,” were John Paul II’s words of greeting when he arrived in Havana on Jan. 21, 1998. According to Ramírez, his words “have the rare virtue of remaining alive among the people; they are still remembered, and repeated, with longing.”

Bertone’s official agenda includes masses in the cities of Havana, Santa Clara and Guantánamo, in an attempt to cover the west, centre and east of the island, respectively. His tour will not duplicate that of John Paul, who 10 years ago celebrated masses in Havana, Santa Clara, and Camagüey and Santiago de Cuba in the east of the country.

On the pastoral side, Cardinal Bertone plans to hold meetings at the COCC headquarters, the San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary, and the Convent of Discalced Carmelite nuns, as well as with the presidency of the Cuban Conference of Religious Orders, the Salesian family and the Catholic press.

In Santa Clara the cardinal will bless sculptures dedicated to John Paul, the first such monument to be erected on the island “in a public place that is not the property of the Church,” according to an article on the official web site of the COCC.

He will also visit the sanctuary of Our Lady of Charity in El Cobre, in the province of Santiago de Cuba, where the 10th anniversary of the coronation of the island’s patroness by John Paul will be commemorated in the Antonio Maceo Plaza of the Revolution, in the provincial capital of the same name.

“We will crown the image of the Queen and Mother of all Cubans, regardless of race, political allegiance or ideology,” said the pope on that day. “For many of the political and economic systems operative today, the greatest challenge is still that of combining freedom and social justice, freedom and solidarity.”

“Remembering Pope John Paul’s visit is important for Catholics, but also for the country as a whole. If one re-reads the pope’s words, one discovers messages that were important at the time, as well as now, when Cuba needs to make changes in order to safeguard our social achievements,” said Ramón García, a 32-year-old historian.

In addition to his pastoral agenda, Bertone will devote the last two days of his trip, Feb. 25 and 26, to an official programme with Cuban authorities, which is to include a lecture at the University of Havana, a visit to the Latin American School of Medicine, a working session at the Foreign Ministry and a formal dinner at the Apostolic Nunciature.

Catholic Church sources had not ruled out a meeting with Fidel Castro, until this week’s announcement cast a different nuance on the situation.

Fidel Castro and Bertone met each other in Havana in October 2005, when the then archbishop of Genoa made a pastoral visit to the island. On that occasion, the Cuban president asked the cardinal to convey an invitation to visit Cuba to Pope Benedict XVI, Bertone told the press.

All topics are up for discussion in the bilateral talks, and “we will discuss with respect and cordiality even those points on which we may not agree,” Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque said on Feb. 13, at a special press conference devoted to the cardinal’s upcoming visit.

Subjects that may cause friction include the issue of political prisoners, 10 years after John Paul secured the release, by means of a pardon or for “humanitarian reasons,” of 295 women imprisoned for various reasons, out of an initial list of 302 cases presented by the Vatican.

Martha Beatriz Roque, one of the group of 75 dissidents arrested in a crackdown in 2003, and who is on conditional release, wrote a letter to Cardinal Bertone asking him to include the issue of “freedom for political prisoners” on his working agenda for his meetings with the Cuban authorities.

In addition to the broad agreement between the two states on international politics, the talks will probably address topics of interest to the Catholic Church in Cuba, such as the opportunity to build new churches, entry permits for priests and nuns from abroad, access to the media, and participation in the educational system.

The Church has expanded its media presence, but it is still insufficient “in a world that is increasingly interconnected by the media,” and it is clear that participation in the Cuban educational system “is not, for the moment, part of the government’s plans,” Orlando Márquez, editor of the Catholic magazine Palabra Nueva, told IPS.

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