When Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski lands in Havana on Friday with 150 Catholic American pilgrims, it will be his third time on the island for a papal visit and one of dozens of trips the archbishop has made to Cuba over 17 years.
Wenski, who leads South Florida's 1.3 million Catholics, among them the largest Cuban American community in the United States, will join the pope for his four-day tour of the island nation, which kicks off Saturday afternoon with a speech after landing at Havana airport. Pope Francis, who is scheduled to celebrate Mass at Revolution Square in Havana on Sunday before visiting with seminarians, bishops and holy sites in the capital, as well as Holguin and Santiago, will also have another American joining him: Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston.
In addition to his outreach to Cuban Catholics, who the Vatican says make up about 60 percent of the country's population of more than 11 million (most do not regularly attend Mass), the pope is also scheduled to meet individually with Cuban President Raul Castro and his brother, former President Fidel Castro. Those meetings will come just two months after the U.S. officially reopened its embassy in Havana as part of the ongoing political thaw between the two nations that Francis helped orchestrate.
The papal visit is the latest development for the growing role of the Catholic church in the country, which was officially atheist until 1992 -- after Pope John Paul II visited -- and opened its first new seminary since the revolution in 2010, two years before Pope Benedict XVI came to the country.
When John Paul II went (to Cuba)... a lot of Cuban people weren't even sure who or what the pope was.
In an interview with HuffPost, Wenski spoke about his hopes for the church in Cuba and the role the pope can play in the political and economic changes taking place in the nation, as well as his take on some of the pope's recent headline-making moves from the Vatican.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This is your third time in Cuba during a papal visit. What's changed in the country?
Each visit builds on the previous one. In 1992, Pope John Paul II's visit really marked an era of "before" and "after." When John Paul II went, the spotlight was really on the repression of the church and the people, and there was a lot of work to be done to prepare people for his visit. A lot of Cuban people weren't even sure who or what the pope was. Now, with Pope Francis, I think everyone knows who the pope is, especially because of the pope's role in the negotiations between Cuba and the United States. The fact that he is Latin American and that his native language is Spanish means that that he will have a natural connection to the people in Cuba.
You last visited in July 2014. There have been major developments since. A U.S. embassy is now open in Havana and a Cuban embassy is now operating in D.C., while economic ties between the two countries are increasing. When you were in Cuba in 2012 with Pope Benedict XVI, you called for the nation to reject the "spent ideology" of Marxism and have a "soft landing" away from its communist past. What are you expecting on the ground now with the changing dynamics of Cuba?
The change in relations has sparked some renewed hopes in Cuba. I think the people will be very receptive to receiving Pope Francis and listening to him. The pope, like the previous two popes, wants to move Cuba toward a better direction. Pope John Paul II, he told Cuba to open itself to the world and for the world to open itself to Cuba. Pope Benedict, he told Cubans to talk to each other, and talked about the Casa Cuba -- the Cuban home -- as somewhere where all Cubans should be feel at home no matter what their political differences.
The theme of Pope Francis' visit is mercy. As such, he will tell the Cuban people to give his brothers and sisters mercy, not insults. That theme of reconciliation is going to be huge in Cuba. In a country where everybody has been betrayed by somebody else -- because of the police state nature and the Stalinist nature of the government that Cubans have -- if you don't have that reconciliation, it will be very difficult.
In a country where everybody has been betrayed by somebody else -- because of the police state nature and the Stalinist nature of the government that Cubans have -- if you don't have that reconciliation, it will be very difficult.
While the Catholic church has made some progress in the country in the loosening of religious restrictions over the years, it's criticized as being too soft on the government's violations of human rights. What major changes do you foresee happening for the church? Can the church be a bridge between Cubans who are are either physically exiled or feel exiled within Cuba and the Cuban government?
As far as the government in power, the church has been urging the government to be a little more daring; they think the changes the government has made have been too timid and that they need to move quicker. The church has told everybody in Cuba, "this mode of conversation church of taking people who don't agree with you as your enemy and excluding them because they don't agree with you, this has to change in a Cuba that will bring hope to its people."
Too often people have a reductive approach to the church and where it goes. The church is not a political party. It doesn't pretend to be. The church wants to transcend that. In transcending that, the church wants to change the culture.
What are you praying for as you get ready to fly out?
I'm praying for the continued work of the church, that it continues to accompany the Cuban people. That it continues to share with the Cuban people the joy of the Gospel. In doing so, I'm praying that it opens the doors within Cuba. Right now, Cuba is a pretty hopeless place. For the average Cuban on the street, a young person, hope is defined by leaving the country and that doesn't bode well for the future of Cuba if all these young people leave.
What will the pope say when he meets Raul or Fidel?
I expect him to meet Raul and greet him at the airport. Fidel … Fidel is pretty is pretty old and decrepit. I don't know what such a meeting would be.
For the average Cuban on the street, a young person, hope is defined by leaving the country and that doesn't bode well for the future of Cuba if all these young people leave.
Last week, the Cuban government announced that it would release 3,522 prisoners as a gesture of goodwill before the pope's visit, and it made a similar move in 2011 before Benedict came to the island. The prisoners are those who haven't been charged with serious crimes, which includes crimes against national security -- something with which political prisoners are often charged. But will the pope meet political dissidents in Cuba?
I'm not sure. He has met with dissidents already in Rome. He met with (the late) Oswaldo Payá’s family last year. He has met with some of the Ladies in White who have left Cuba. If he met any dissidents, I don't think he would say anything different in private than what he has said in public and vice versa.
As tens of thousands of Syrians and nationals from other Middle Eastern countries seek refuge from poverty and civil war, the pope recently called on all European parishes to take in one migrant family. The news has not been welcomed by everyone, including at least one Hungarian bishop who said the pope was wrong. You have worked frequently with immigrants, especially Cubans and Haitians. What do you make of pope's words?
Human beings have a right to a condition worthy of human life. Because you're a human, you have a right to dignity. The pope said if you can't find dignity in your own land, you have the right to seek it elsewhere. There is a right to migrate and popes have upheld that, especially in great situations of distress. But there is also a right not to migrate. While welcoming these migrants that have come looking for hope, we also have to work to change situations in the place they came from. Syrians refugees right now and Africans, do they have conditions worthy of human life where they are coming from? Because they are our brothers and sisters, we have to do something for their homelands to make them more worthy of human life.
The pope said if you can't find dignity in your own land, you have the right to seek it elsewhere. There is a right to migrate...
Francis has become famous for, among other things, talking in more positive terms about LGBT people. His famous "who am I to judge" remark comes to mind. At the same time, he has spoken against same-sex marriage and the "ideological colonization that tries to destroy the family." The Supreme Court ruled this summer that marriage should be open to gay couples across the U.S. Will Francis talk about LGBT issues while here?
I don't think you'll find any endorsement of gay marriage from the pope when he goes to Philadelphia for a conference that deals with the family. The pope will say the gospel is for everyone, that everyone is called to conversion ... gays are not rejected by the church, though a lot of gays might reject the church because they don't want to pay the price of conversion. That is true of other people, too. … Like the pope said, if a priest is accused of being gay, if he is trying to do God's will, "Who am I to judge?" He is not endorsing the gay lifestyle, he is saying that if someone is struggling with it, that person would be supported.
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