HOW POPE JOHN PAUL II CONVINCED FIDEL TO CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS – MIAMI ARCHBISHOP RECALLS CATHOLIC PERSECUTION IN CUBA, PRAYS FOR PEACE

Two post-Castro stories, a papal spokesman and a bishop….

HOW POPE JOHN PAUL II CONVINCED FIDEL TO CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS

(La Stampa newspaper) – The Polish Pope’s former spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the late Fidel Castro “wanted to know everything there was to know about John Paul II.”

“Fidel Castro kept me talking for six hours. He was fascinated by John Paul II and although he was jealous of his inner life. I sensed he wanted to delve deeper… I told him he was a lucky man because the Pope prayed for him every day. For once he was silent.”

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On the occasion of Pope Wojtyla’s visit to Cuba in January 1998, the role of Joaquín Navarro-Valls, John Paul II’s spokesman, went far beyond his official duties as director of the Holy See Press Office. He talked about it with Andrea Tornielli in an interview with Italian daily La Stampa. (It is customary in Italian media to often use the family name of a Pope when referencing him, thus Pope Wojtyla).

How did the Pope’s visit to the island come about after he had helped bring down the Berlin Wall, one of the last bastions of communism? “John Paul II had been sending delegates to Cuba for a decade or so. The Vatican “minister for foreign affairs”, Jean Louis Tauran also went. The Pope was eager to visit the island but he still hadn’t received an invitation. Finally, in November 1996, Castro came to Rome for an FAO meeting, he was received in the Vatican and formally invited the Pope.”

How did you prepare for the visit? “We worked for the whole of 1997 to organise it. Three months prior to the visit, in October that year, I went to Havana and met Fidel. It was a long meeting that went on for six hours and ended at around three in the morning. Castro was fascinated by John Paul II, he wanted to know everything there was to know about him, who his family was, what his life had been like. He wanted to know more about Wojtyla as a man and gave away his admiration for him. I sensed he wanted to delve deeper. I said to him: “Mr. President, I envy you”. “Why?” “Because the Pope prays for you every day, he prays that a man of your education may find the way of the Lord again.” For once, the Cuban president was silent.”

What did you ask Castro on behalf of the Holy See? “I explained to him that now that the date of the visit was set – for 21 January 1998 – it would be interesting if it were a great success. ‘Cuba needs to surprise the word,” I told him. Fidel agreed. So I added something about the surprises the Pope was expecting. I asked Castro for Christmas, which was just around the corner, to be celebrated as an official holiday for the first time since the start of the Revolution.”

How did the Líder Máximo react? “He said it would be very difficult as Christmas fell right in the middle of the sugar cane harvesting season. To which I responded: ‘But the Holy Father would like to be able to publicly thank you for this gesture once he lands in Havana.’ After a long discussion, Castro finally said yes, although he did add; ‘But it could be for this year only.’ All I said was: ‘Great, the Pope will be grateful to you for this. And as for next year, we’ll see.’ As we know, to this day, Christmas is still celebrated as a public holiday in Cuba.”

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How did Pope Wojtyla view Castro? “On the flight to Havana, a journalist asked the Pope what advice he would give to the US president regarding the stance it should adopt towards Cuba: ‘To change!’ he replied. Then he was asked what he expected from Cuba’s president and this is how he responded: ‘I expect him to explain his true nature to me, as a man, as a leader and as a commander in chief’. I wasn’t on that flight, I was already in Havana. I received the text of that reply and I showed it to Castro while I was waiting for the Pope to land. That way there would be a written agenda for their meeting. The face-to-face meeting lasted quite a while and at the end of it they both came out smiling. I remember the mass in the Plaza de la Revolución with the Castro brothers in the front row and the crowd shouting ‘Libertad! Libertad!’ as the Pope pronounced his homily. And I remember the words with which Fidel bid John Paul II goodbye at the airport before he set off back to Rome: ‘Thank you for everything you said, even for those words I may not have liked.’ He had this human elegance about him as Wojtyla smiled: that visit marked the beginning of long but real process of opening up”.

MIAMI ARCHBISHOP RECALLS CATHOLIC PERSECUTION IN CUBA, PRAYS FOR PEACE

MIAMI (CNS) — On the day the news of Fidel Castro’s death spread, Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami was one of the first Catholic Church officials to respond early Nov. 26. “Fidel Castro is dead,” he wrote in a statement. “The death of this figure should lead us to invoke the patroness of Cuba, the Virgin of Charity, calling for peace for Cuba and its people.”

Later that day at Ermita de la Caridad, a Miami shrine that honors Cuba’s patron Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre and one built, he said in his homily, “with the sacrifices of the (Cuban) exiles,” he focused on the suffering of Catholic Cuba and the news of Castro’s death. The 90-year-old former leader of Cuba reportedly died late at night Nov. 25.

“The Cuban people are a noble people, but also a people who suffer,” Archbishop Wenski said. “And now, on the eve of this first Sunday of Advent, to emphasize the words of Christ ‘at the hour you least expect, the Son of Man will come,’ we have learned that Fidel Castro has died.” He continued: “Each human being, each of us, will die. We will all be judged one day. Today, it is his (Fidel Castro’s) turn. God’s judgment is merciful, but it doesn’t cease to be just.”

Archbishop Wenski asked those gathered to invoke Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre and ask for her intercession. “She has accompanied the Cuban people for more than 400 years,” he said, including during the country’s battle for independence and she “suffered with the church when the Marxist obscurantism wounded and decimated (the church).” She has been there in good times and in times of turmoil, in the Cuban prisons and in the agricultural “forced labor camps” the Cuban government operated, he said.

Referencing recent moments in the history of the island when Catholics hid their faith fearing persecution by a government and a society that looked down on religion, he said the Virgin was present in the prayer cards people hid in their dressers, as church members were “forced to survive by publicly denying their devotion.” And Mary is there with those who, despite all the challenges they have faced, continue to pass on the gift of faith to their children and grandchildren on the island.

She remains on the island today, he said, and continues to lavish her motherly love “in prisons that still are not empty and in the midst of women who walk demanding freedom.”

Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre is present, Archbishop Wenski said, with those inside and outside Cuba, who “fight for respect for human dignity and to establish a future of freedom, justice and peace.”