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The Pope in Cuba

/ 12:10 AM September 23, 2015

There is much that we share with Cuba, including a common history of Spanish colonialism and a strong American hand in our politics. (Although Cuba became independent in 1901, it was virtually a US colony with the American government constantly intervening in its affairs, until Fidel Castro led a revolt overthrowing a pro-American dictator, Fulgencio Batista.)

Cuba became communist in 1965 and the United States has tried to keep it isolated with an economic embargo. Only recently were diplomatic ties restored between the two countries, largely through the intercession of Pope Francis.

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That was a long introduction to Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba, one which Filipinos should follow, almost as a sequel to his visit to the Philippines early this year. Our shared history with Cuba is not just about colonialism but also about local elites that have propagated extreme economic inequity and scandalous gaps between the rich and the poor.

Many of the Pope’s homilies in Cuba resonate for us. As in all his papal visits, he continued to exhort people to serve the poor; in fact, one headline in the National Catholic Reporter reads: “In Cuba, Francis begs for poor church.” In Havana’s Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception, he said: “Wealth impoverishes… It takes away the best that we have. It makes us poor. It places our faith in something else.”

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Feudal relationship

The Pope’s calls for a Church that embraces poverty are going to be particularly challenging for countries like the Philippines. People, including devout Catholics, continue to be ambivalent about the Catholic Church, loving it and yet noticing the lifestyles of some of its priests and bishops. In a way, we look at the Church officials much like our politicians, not quite approving of the conspicuous display of wealth, yet also going to them—politicians and priests—in times of need. The relationship becomes feudal, with loyalties built on dependency.

Pope Francis’ homilies in Cuba also had another important theme—what I will call antisectarianism. In a homily delivered in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, with a huge picture of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara in the background, he called for openness, citing as an example Jesus’ choice of Matthew as a disciple. Matthew was a tax collector, despised for collecting taxes from Jews and in behalf of the Romans.

The Pope reminded people that “service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people.”

In the homily at the cathedral, he observed that “sometimes we’re very closed. We put ourselves into our own little world…”

The Pope was able to connect close-mindedness with an insensitivity to the way poverty impacts on the lives of people. He called on the clergy to show mercy when hearing confessions, to understand the way poverty thrusts people into situations that priests are too quick to label as sin: “When they show you their misery, please … don’t punish them.” Quoting St. Ambrose, the Pope said: “When there is mercy, there is Jesus. Where there is rigidness, only his ministers are there.”

In the last year or so, the Pope has called for a simplification of marriage annulment procedures, which right now are expensive and takes a long period to complete. In an interview about two years ago, he mentioned how he had seen poor people having to lose work during the days they had to use for processing their applications and attending hearings.

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‘Little convents’

In Havana, the Pope decried the close-mindedness that comes from both religion and political ideology: “When a religion closes itself up in its ‘own little convent,’ it loses the best of itself, which is to look to God… And when I have my ideology, my way of thinking, and you have yours, I close myself within that ‘little convent’ of ideology.”

The Pope asked: “Why do we only shake hands with those we have something in common with? … We should encourage ourselves to speak about what we have in common and, afterwards, we can speak about the things about which we think differently.” He added, tongue in cheek: “I said ‘speak,’ I didn’t say ‘fight.’”

Reading the Pope’s speeches, I thought about our own situation, and debates, over religion and politics. At the University of the Philippines, I have to keep reminding the faculty that as a government institution, we cannot favor one particular religion, but this does not mean that we should become antireligion, which would be another form of sectarianism.

The Pope’s references to ideology made me think, too, of ideological sectarianism, which can sometimes be even more rigid than religious sectarianism. Hewing to a political line closes us to the possibilities of working with people who have ideas different from our own. Even worse is when we begin to label them, first with mild terms, but later with strong ones, now casting them as the enemy.

What happens with the enemy tag is that not only do we refuse to talk with such people but we also begin to incite others to hate and to attack them. Name-calling becomes insufficient and gives way to actual physical attacks.

Al Jazeera has been replaying a documentary, “China Rising,” that includes footage on the Cultural Revolution—photographs of “class enemies” being punished in public, forced to wear dunce caps and paraded in front of jeering crowds. One photographer from that era described how an old man had ink smeared on his face, and then poured down his back.

The worse of sectarianism is paranoia—no longer trusting one’s neighbor, or, for political groups, even one’s own comrades, leading to purges and executions.

The Pope’s visit to Cuba coincided with our own observance of the 43rd anniversary of the imposition of martial law. At UP Diliman, a Sunday “Lean Walk” was held to commemorate the September 1972 declaration of martial law together with the 28th anniversary of the assassination of student leader Lean Alejandro. The call of speaker after speaker was: Never again.

It will do us good to connect the Pope Francis’ call for openness to the May 2016 elections. We should think hard whenever we hear candidates proposing short-cut solutions to our problems, especially when they involve suppressing other people’s rights to be heard and to speak.

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TAGS: Catholic Church, communism, Cuba, Pope Francis, Spain, Spanish colonialism, United States
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