The Pope in Cuba
by P.F. Bentley
Reaching for the Holy Water
bath in St. Bosco's Church.

        Esther Garcia, 49, returned to the church about three years ago when her daughter Evelyn Roman decided she wanted to get baptized. “I wanted to have something to believe in,” says Evelyn, a pretty 18 year old who was wearing a Champion shirt. “I felt very alive there. There was so much peace,” says Evelyn. “Peace is something that’s been missing. People are looking for faith,” her mom says.
    Her mother is glad that her daughter spends her time at mass rather than “going around looking for foreigners to make money off of.” She thinks the church has become much more “human”. The last time she was in a church 30 years ago she remembers that the priest kicked out a poor fisherman’s son, because he was dressed in rags. “You can not come into God’s house like that,” she says he told the boy as he pushed him out the door. She was disgusted and left. Now, instead of priests turning their back on the congregation and conducting mass in Latin, “They come in through the front door with the people and greet them,” Esther says. “The church has evolved.’ She is not communist. She says, “I’m Cubana and that’s it.” She insists the church invited the Pope and Fidel just “ratified it” and she sees the invitation as a “strategy.”  Her daughter says she’s not interested in politics. “I’m interested in growing personally, and that’s it,” she says.
        But for the four young men from Pastoral Youth, a church group they belong to, the church is a political statement. And the church has become Cuba’s only civil society, filling the role of the state that Fidel’s government can no longer fill. The four young men were helping guide pilgrims from the provinces to the Plaza in their home town of Santiago. They wore Pope shirts showing him smiling and holding up a little black girl with pigtails. They were all decked out in paraphernalia: pins, medals of the pope around their necks, baseball hats, etc. At several points as the most outspoken of the crew got riled up, his friends gestured with their hands for him to lower his voice. Then they moved under the pretense of needing to be in the shade to get out of earshot of a man in a guayabera shirt they thoughts was security.
        Odel Gainza, 20, an industrial chemist has been catholic since 1991. He is tall and very dark skinned. Camelo Fabra, 15, joined in 1996. He was blond with a adolescent mustache. “The church has activities that young people want. They organize recreation and sports competitions,” Odel explains. “There is less of problem being in the church now, but still some. I don’t bring up the fact that I’m religious at work. They’d call it “ideological diversion.” Those who tell you they are militants and religious, 99 percent of them are lying. You’d have problems in the party if you were really religious.” He says those who parrot the state’s line that Fidel and the Pope have a lot in common are “programmed.” “The Pope saves people, he doesn’t oppress people. The Pope would never put a cardinal in jail.” They are vehemently anti-communist. And Odel says that it’s through the church that he’s found out more about the outside world. “In the church you have more access to foreign publications,” Odel says, explaining that he learned about the Pope’s anti-communist activity in a church publication. “Priests come and go more and are allowed to bring in documents from outside.”

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