Why a Papal Mass Matters in Havana

Cubans share their hopes with GOOD during a historic visit from Pope Francis.

Luisa, 75, on her way to the mass. Image by Julie Schwietert Collazo

By 8 a.m. this morning, an hour before Pope Francis was scheduled to start Mass in Havana’s iconic Revolution Plaza (Plaza de la Revolución), crowds of faithful—and not so faithful—had already filled the large rectangular lot that sits in the shadow of some of the Cuban capital's most photographed structures. To their backs was the National Library, whose facade had been draped with a giant banner depicting Jesus and the phrase “Vengan a Mi,” or “Come to Me.” To their right, were images of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, heroes of the Cuban Revolution, who looked upon the crowd from their permanent locations on the side of two government buildings. “Che and Pope Francis, Argentina’s heroes,” whispered a woman visiting from Argentina, the Pope’s home country, as a chorus began to sing hymns.

Soon, in front of them, Pope Francis would appear.

But in the meantime, they kept coming. They came on buses, which began lining up by the dozens on side streets of Havana's neighborhoods shortly after 6 a.m. And they came on foot, already drenched in sweat from the island’s intense humidity, but eager to elbow their way to the front of the crowd. One was Luisa, a 75-year-old Catholic woman who walked a mile from her Centro Habana neighborhood to the plaza. “I love him because he is the pope of the poor,” she said. More than anything, she wanted to be among the 40,000 people expected to show up for Pope Francisco’s first Mass in Cuba in order to receive the blessing of the Catholic Church’s most important leader.

Luisa wasn't the only one eager to receive a papal blessing. Catholics from all over Latin America—Argentina, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, and Puerto Rico—made pilgrimages, hopeful that the first Latin-American pope might have some special words for them. They weren’t disappointed. At the conclusion of the Mass, Pope Francis rose to address the crowd a final time, saying that he wanted to offer a special message about Colombia. “May Christ continue to sustain efforts that have been made to resolve the decades-long armed conflict [in Colombia],” he said, adding, “Please, we cannot allow another failure on this road to peace.” The remarks were not out of place; Cuba has been key to hosting and mediating talks between the Colombian stakeholder groups involved in that conflict.

Of course, many onlookers, both those in the square and those watching on television in Cuba and abroad, were waiting with bated breath to hear what Pope Francis might have to say about Cuba itself. The Havana Mass, particularly given its symbolic location, seemed like a perfect moment for the pontiff, who has been instrumental in the renewal of U.S.-Cuba relations, and who will be visiting the United States and the United Nations General Assembly after he concludes his Cuba tour, to address hot button issues. Would he address human rights violations in Cuba? Would he make a bold statement about freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or the protection of religious liberties?

Image by Julie Schwietert Collazo

He did not—not overtly, anyway. In his 13-minute homily, the pope expounded upon the Gospel reading, from the Book of Mark, Chapter 9, Verses 30-37. The central idea of this gospel reading is, “Let he who wants to be first, be the last among all and the servant of all,” and in his homily, Pope Francis spoke about the motivation behind and meaning of true service. “Who is the most important?” the pontiff asked rhetorically, adding, “Jesus is not afraid of our questions. And he is not afraid of the distinct paths we take on our search for answers. Let us recognize that those who wish to serve must defend and care for the fragile among us.” He added, “Service is never ideological,” which seemed to be the most pointed phrase of his homily and end-of-Mass remarks.

It was a message that could resonate with anyone in the crowd, but many Cubans present were especially thrilled to hear it, even if presented in the form of metaphor. For young Catholics, in particular, Pope Francis's homily was a message of hope, and one that inspired them. Reiniel Hernández Sierra, a university student who identifies as Catholic, said that Pope Francis’ message was “just what we needed,” and he left the Mass feeling a renewed commitment to his faith. “His visit and his words are a blessing,” Hernández said. “I believe the most important thing about his message [were his final words]: ‘Those who don’t live to serve don’t serve to live’.” It's a message Hernández believes is especially relevant for young Cubans, who, he says, need to hear about the importance of being of service to others.

Hernández attended the Mass as part of a group of college students who identify as Catholic and practice their faith openly. This isn’t always easy in Cuba, he and his friends say, in part because they have difficulty receiving books and other reading materials that they feel would deepen their faith. While Cuba’s constitution indicates that there is a separation between church and state and that “the distinct beliefs and religions enjoy equal consideration [under the law],” their day-to-day reality doesn't always square with that ideal.

Another member of Hernández’s group, who asked that only her first name, Yeleani, be used, said that she has been in classrooms where school officials have entered and asked students to identify their religious affiliations. The climate isn’t one of fear, the students say, or of overt repression, but they wish that they could feel more free about expressing their faith. Since the revolution brought Fidel Castro’s government to power in 1959, relations between the Church and Havana have often been strained or worse. A 1998 visit from the late Pope John Paul II indicated that divide was beginning to narrow, and new churches, an expansion of the Church’s local social work, and now Pope Francis’ visit have all been reported as signs that momentum is likely to continue.

Armando and Yoao Pujol at the mass in Havana. Image by Julie Schwietert Collazo

Armando Pujol and his son, Yoao Pujol, who live in Havana and attended the papal Mass, said that they have noticed more people attending their church recently, and they are hopeful that the pope's visit, along with warmer U.S.-Cuba relations and the pope’s role in that détente, will open a new chapter for the history of the Catholic church in Cuba.

For 62-year old Fernando, who I met walking on the street the day before the papal Mass, even if there's no long-term effect of the pope's visit, he’s happy that the pontiff chose to come to Cuba. When asked if he identified as Catholic he laughed and said, “No, but I’m part of the pueblo, right? And if he came to bless the people, then he came to bless me, too.”

Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

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A medical bill in the US

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via Wikimedia Commons

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