Miami archbishop says pope’s visit will help bring Cubans together
Miami archbishop says pope’s visit will help bring Cubans together
BY MIMI WHITEFIELD
Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who will be leading his third pilgrimage
to Cuba for a papal visit this month, says it’s no accident that Pope
Francis chose to go to Cuba before a three-city visit to the United States.
With the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the United
States and Cuba on July 20 after more than 54 years of hostility, the
pope is coming to Cuba “at a time of renewed hope,” he said.
“Now Cuba becomes a bridge for Francis’ trip to the United States. In
that sense it is very significant,” said Wenski in an interview with the
Miami Herald at the archdiocese Pastoral Center in Miami Shores.
After winding up his Sept. 19-22 visit to Cuba, the pope will spend six
days in the United States — a trip that includes a meeting with
President Barack Obama, an address to a joint session of Congress and a
visit to the United Nations before he heads to Philadelphia, where the
emphasis will be on families.
When Pope Francis visits Washington, he will do so from the perspective
of having just experienced Cuba’s reality and also will be able to draw
from his 1998 trip to Cuba, when he was assistant archbishop of Buenos
Aires and accompanied Pope John Paul II on his papal visit to the
island, Wenski said.
Although he downplays his role, the pope also aided the 18 months of
secret negotiations between Cuba and the United States that culminated
in the Dec. 17 announcement that the two countries would begin working
toward normalizing relations and had overcome an impasse over release of
prisoners, including USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, who had been held
in Cuba for five years.
Obama met with the pope in the spring of 2014, and in the summer Francis
wrote letters to both Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro, urging them to
find their way forward on humanitarian grounds. The negotiators also
were invited to the Vatican in early October, and it was there they
worked out the final agreement for rapprochement.
Part of Francis’ mission as a pontiff is to be a “bridge builder,” said
Sister Ondina Cortés, a theology professor at St. Thomas University. The
rapprochement with the United States will “create new opportunities for
reconciliation,” she said, but the process won’t be automatic and will
require ongoing work.
Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski will lead a pilgrimage to Cuba in
September to attend Pope Francis’ mass in Havana and visit with Cuban
catholics and their churches. Video by Emily Michot / Miami Herald
staff; photos by Patrick Farrell / Miami Herald staff; video of Pope in
Cuba courtesy of The Archdiocese of Miami
Starting with John Paul II’s five-day visit to Cuba in January 1998 and
followed by Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Santiago and Havana in March
2012, the papal visits have built on each other as the popes have sought
to gain more space for the Catholic church, the practice of faith and
the Cuban people. Wenski expects that will be the case with Francis’
visit as well.
Implicit in both Benedict’s and John Paul’s remarks while they were in
Cuba was the need for reconciliation — between Cubans both on and off
In Benedict’s homilies, he encouraged people to talk to each other, said
Wenski, and in his farewell address at the airport, he talked about Casa
Cuba — the Cuban home — as a place where all Cubans should feel at home
regardless of political or ideological differences.
“That is a theme that is being spoken about much more, especially with
the renewal of the relationship between the United States and Cuba,”
said Wenski. “We see not only a new willingness for engagement and
dialogue between the United States and Cuba but between Cubans here and
As he arrived in Cuba in 1998, John Paul uttered these prophetic words:
“May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the
world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba….”
“The homilies [of John Paul] almost present a road map of what the path
forward should be,” said Wenski. “John Paul’s visit marks a before and
after in the relationship of the church and the Cuban government and a
before and after in a lot of things. The visit of John Paul really
changed attitudes in the exile community and in Cuba, where his trip was
a signal that it was safe to go to church again.”
Cuba was officially an atheist state from 1962 until 1992, and after
John Paul’s visit, “the church experienced a continuing growth,” said
Wenski. A seminary, one of the fruits of John Paul’s visit, opened in
2011. “Most of these seminarians who are studying for the priesthood
weren’t even Catholic when John Paul II was visiting Cuba,” Wenski said.
“There was certainly a sea change during his visit.”
Since then there also has been a sea change in the Cuban exile
community, as newer waves of Cubans arrive, said Wenski, who not only
speaks fluent Spanish but is well versed in Cuban slang.
For John Paul’s visit, Wenski chartered a cruise ship to take South
Florida pilgrims to Cuba, but there was such an outcry in the community
— taking a cruise ship was considered frivolous and had the connotation
of going on vacation — that then-Archbishop John Favalora pulled the
plug after the ship had already been contracted. A smaller group of
pilgrims flew to Cuba for the papal Mass.
“There were people questioning why John Paul was even going to Cuba
because they feared John Paul would be manipulated by Castro,” said
Wenski. “Yet this was the same John Paul II who brought down the Iron
Leading the charge against the cruise ship was business executive Carlos
Saladrigas. “But he watched the papal Mass on television and realized he
had made a tremendous mistake,” Wenski said.
Saladrigas, now a proponent of more engagement with Cuba, took part in
the archdiocese pilgrimage for Benedict’s trip, and he and his wife Olga
plan to travel to Cuba with the Knights of Malta, a lay religious order,
because he and Olga also want to take part in the papal Mass in Holguín,
her hometown. The archdiocese pilgrimage will only go to Havana.
At a recent symposium on Francis’ visit at Florida International
University, Wenski and Saladrigas clapped each other on the back.
Saladrigas said he later told Wenski he was sorry for opposing the
cruise ship. “I said, ‘Carlos, I am also sorry you opposed the cruise
ship,’” Wenski said. “But he gave me his blessing anyway,” added Saladrigas.
“This time I had people asking me if we were taking a cruise ship — even
people who were against a cruise ship before,” said the archbishop.
“Some of them were even placing calls to see if they could find a cruise
ship.” But since the Vatican only announced Francis’ visit in April,
Wenski said there wasn’t enough time.
Instead, about 150 pilgrims will accompany Wenski and Cardinal Sean
O’Malley of Boston on a flight to Havana and about 40 others are making
other flight arrangements, said Vivian Mannerud, president of Airline
Line Brokers, which is arranging the archdiocese trip. There’s a waiting
list of about 100 people, she said, and had there been sufficient hotel
accommodations in Havana, many more pilgrims would have gone from South
But there are still contentious issues surrounding the pope’s visit. One
is whether the pope plans to meet with human rights activists and
dissidents as they have requested. Pope Benedict chose not to during his
“I think the Holy Father should bear witness to the suffering of the
Cubans and advise the Castro regime that he — unlike the last pope to
visit Cuba — will not remain silent if the Castros’ security police
attempt to prevent human-rights activists, their families and victims of
the Cuban state’s repression from attending the papal Mass or to punish
democracy advocates for displaying banners or signs supporting ‘freedom’
and ‘democracy’ at the mass,” said Frank Calzon, executive director of
the Center for a Free Cuba.
“Pope Francis played a role in bringing Washington and Havana together
to talk. I hope the pope will now ask Fidel’s brother Raúl Castro, the
president of Cuba, to permit Cubans to gather and talk among themselves
and convene a formal and free round-table discussion,” he said.
Wenski said he doesn’t know whether Francis plans to sit down with a
“specific group” of dissidents. Such a meeting is not currently on the
pope’s schedule. “I think he will speak his mind and he will speak his
mind publicly. What he would say if he met with dissidents privately
wouldn’t be very different from what he says publicly. His public
message will bring comfort and light to all of Cuba.”
During a trip to Latin America in July, the pope repeatedly touched on
serving the poor, more respect for the Earth, the need for dialogue and
the evils of inequalities caused by rampant capitalism.
“In Cuba, of course, the issues he raised in Latin America are germane
as well,” said Wenski, “but he won’t be repeating what he said. If he
were, there would be no reason for him to go to Cuba. Cuba has some
unique circumstances and I think he’s going to give a different and
further message in Cuba.
“I can’t predict what the Holy Father will say, but I can predict that
it will be very interesting,” Wenski said.
Asked if he thought the pope would bring up the U.S. embargo against
Cuba during his address to Congress, Wenski said the pope may bring up
many themes from migration and the Middle East to young people and their
difficult job prospects.
“If he does address Cuba that will be fine too,” he said. “Now the key
to lifting the embargo is in Congress’ hands.”
Wenski himself has been on record against the embargo since the 1990s.
“I’ve been calling for an end to it for quite a long time and so has the
church,” he said. “The embargo is a very blunt instrument and it ends up
hurting innocent people as much or more than the guilty that it is
designed to punish.
“Of course over the years in Miami, the embargo has had a different
symbolism,” he said. “It has come to represent for many people for many
years that we haven’t surrendered.” But as a policy tool, he said, “it
hasn’t reached its stated objectives.”
For early waves of exiles who suffered harassment, humiliation and more
at the hands of the Castro government, he said, “there are still scars
that have yet to heal.”
Meanwhile, he said, the seeds sown during the previous papal visits are
still bearing fruit. “It’s a slow process, but people in Cuba talk
about… opening space. The church is always trying to gain more space,
filling it and not giving it back up.”
Wenski said he expects it will be “a great uplifting experience to greet
the Holy Father in Cuba.” But unlike John Paul and Benedict, he said,
this time it will be a Latin American pope celebrating Mass and
addressing the Cuban people in his and their native language.
“Let him loose and let him speak in Spanish,” said Wenski, “and it might
be even more effective in touching our hearts.”
WHAT THE POPES SAID IN CUBA
“Cuba and the world need change, but this will occur only if each one is
in a position to seek the truth and chooses the way of love, sowing
reconciliation and fraternity.” — Pope Benedict XVI’s homily during a
mass before hundreds of thousands in Havana’s Revolution Square, March 2012
“My best wishes are joined with the prayer that this land may offer
everyone a climate of freedom, mutual trust, social justice and lasting
peace. May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to
the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba….” — Pope John
Paul II as he arrived for a five-day visit to Cuba in January 1998
“From the very first moment of my presence among you, I wish to say with
the same force as at the beginning of my pontificate: ‘Do not be afraid
to open your hearts to Christ.’”— John Paul in his arrival speech at
José Martí International Airport
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