Amid persistent speculation about the political agenda Pope John Paul II will bring to Cuba this week, the senior Roman Catholic official on the island insisted Monday that the papal interest is purely spiritual.
“The pope’s visit is to the church and to all Cubans,” Cardinal Jaime Ortega told hundreds of reporters at a news conference. “To speak of a state visit is to distort things.”
“I believe in the separation of church and state,” Ortega said, “which means it’s not (appropriate) to mix realities that pertain to the government with those of (faith).”
The pope is scheduled to arrive Wednesday afternoon for a four-day visit that will wrap up Sunday with an open-air Mass in Havana’s massive Plaza of the Revolution, the symbolic soul of Cuba’s socialist aspirations.
The pope, 77 and in failing health, also is scheduled to celebrate outdoor Mass in three other Cuban cities and meet with Cuban President Fidel Castro and the leaders of the island’s other faiths.
Prospects for huge turnouts at the papal Masses greatly increased Monday when government authorities announced that most workers would be allowed to attend the events without being docked pay. Losing a day’s wage could mean not eating for the families of many Cuban workers, who earn as little as $10 a month.
In a televised monologue last weekend, Castro urged people to show up at the Masses, whether they were Catholic or not, as a show of respect for the pope.
While he emphasized that the Vatican has no political agenda for the visit, Ortega said the visit has accelerated a spiritual awakening in Cuba that has been going on for some time.
Ortega pointed to the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who turned out last year to view a statue of the Virgin of Charity, the island’s patron, as it toured the countryside last year.
“This is proof of perhaps a sleeping, perhaps a hidden, faith that appeared,” he said. “This was an unexpected thing for us.”
Ortega acknowledged that preparations for the visit had helped open more social space for the Roman Catholic Church in what was until recently an officially atheist society.
Still, he complained of continued restricted access to the state-controlled media.
The Cuban government permitted Ortega to celebrate open-air Masses around the country last fall. He also spoke for 30 minutes on national television last week to discuss the papal visit.
However, the church was not permitted to broadcast advertisement’s for the visit on television, Ortega said. And it’s still uncertain whether every one of the pope’s Masses would be carried by national television or if they would be broadcast live.
“We would have liked, not excessive access (to mass media) … but more space,” Ortega said.
So far, the economic impact of the visit has been the most noticeable.
The Cuban telephone company and other government agencies are taking in millions of dollars in fees and service charges from the foreign media companies.
Officials of Cuba’s Marxist government insist, however, that they are not looking to turn a dollar, or millions of them, on the papal visit.
“We are not thinking of the pope’s visit as a business,” said Jose Luis Rodriguez, the economy and planning minister. “It is an honor for us to receive him.”