Benedict XVI hopes to renew church in Cuba

March 27, 2012 4:41:40 AM PDT
Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Cuba Monday on his first trip to the communist country. His predecessor, John Paul II, visited the island 14 years ago.

Less than 10 percent of Cubans are practicing Catholics and until the 1990s, the nation was officially an atheist state. The pope says he wants to renew his church in Cuba.

President Raul Castro greeted the 84-year-old pontiff in Santiago de Cuba. Later, the pope celebrated Mass.

The outdoor service attracted an impressive portion of Santiago's 600,000 residents on the southeast coast of Cuba. A rain storm over Revolution Square during Mass seemed to be the only unscheduled event during an otherwise choreographed day.

When the pope's jetliner arrived from Mexico Monday afternoon, Cuban and Vatican flags were flown from the cockpit. Castro, the country's dictator-president, met the pope as he stepped onto Cuban ground.

The welcome ceremony -- unusually militaristic for a papal arrival -- was followed by Castro's assessment that Cuba and the Vatican have good relations in contrast to Pope Benedict's remarks moments later suggesting many Cubans are suffering from "manipulation by dubious interests."

When the pope arrives in Havana on Tuesday, human rights and an end to the U.S. trade embargo are expected to be priorities, especially in a private meeting with Raul Castro and possibly his older brother, Fidel.

Rights issues were at the forefront of a group discussion by an Evanston-based arts group that has been touring Cuba for the past week.

"Cuba is so rich culturally," said Joanna Pinsky of Evanston Art Encounter. "It has a long history of very interesting, mixed culture."

"It's a country really on the verge of change," said Ellen Kamerling, Evanston Art Encounter. "It's constantly changing, so people come and we give them the chance to have intimate encounters with people from all different walks of life."

As the pope's next stop is Havana, young Catholics there gathered in a city park to encourage attendance at Wednesday's final public Mass, exercising religious freedom their great grandparents probably never envisioned.

There are also those not so subtle reminders of who is in charge in Cuba. One hundred and fifty potential protesters were arrested and detained by the Cuban government ahead of the pope's Mass to make sure they don't make any trouble, according to a group of dissidents.

Chicago students in Cuba as pope arrives

Among those in Cuba are a group of students from Benedictine University in west suburban Lisle. They will spend their spring break not at a resort beach or the poolside bar but spent traveling across Cuba on an educational mission that happened to coincide with the pope's travels.

"Being that the pope is such a monumental figure and influential world figure, it will definitely be interesting to see what happens," said Tariq Weaver, Benedictine senior.

"Now that more figures are coming to Cuba, I think that it will definitely make it easier and it will boost their world image and yeah, I think the pope's image will do a lot of good for the country," said Ismail Dogar, Benedictine senior.

"I think that faith does play a very important part here," said Maritza Zepeda, Benedectine junior. "People do discuss it. I've asked people about the pope and as far as I know, the locals representing youth - they're very excited he's out here."

"Institutionally, the state may frown upon Catholicism, but the people, that's a different story," said Jack Thornburg, Benedictine University professor. "They want to practice their faith and they find ways of doing so."

The pontiff traveled through the streets of Santiago in his popemobile and then checked into his interesting accommodations in that city -- a small home built for him just for Monday night's stay. It is modest by Vatican standards, but it would withstand an 8.0 earthquake.