Now that Pope John Paul II has put a human face on Cuban Catholics, U.S. bishops said Saturday they are in a stronger position to push for an end to the economic and spiritual isolation of the island nation.
Several American church leaders who made the trip to Cuba said that they expect their bishops’ conference to renew its opposition to the U.S. economic blockade and pursue closer relations between U.S. and Cuban Catholics.<
“We ought to reiterate our strong position that the embargo isn’t doing anything” other than causing the poor to suffer, said Cardinal James Hickey of Washington, D.C. “I personally think we have nothing to fear from having a free relationship with Cuba. We’re a strong country and we’re not going to be overwhelmed.”
U.S.-Cuban relations are a sensitive subject for the Catholic Church in the United States, which has stood with the pope in opposing the government embargo on humanitarian aid. Most Cuban Americans are Catholic, and many are part of the strong lobbying effort that has kept the U.S. economic blockade in place since 1962.
In the Archdiocese of Miami, the spiritual homeland of Cuban American Catholics, a cruise to Cuba for papal pilgrims was canceled after intense opposition. Exile leaders objected that the pilgrims’ spending would aid the Cuban economy and undermine their support of the economic blockade.
Still, 25 U.S. bishops have joined the pope here to express their support of the Cuban church.
What the visit has shown to the American people, some say, is not a church under government control but rather a church that has kept a strong faith while struggling for greater religious freedom.
“Hopefully, the people in Miami will realize the church is a vital church and give it the benefit of the doubt,” said Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Wenske of Miami.
During his visits with local Catholics, Cardinal John O’Connor of New York said: “It seemed clear to me that they wanted us to appreciate how much they have sacrificed for their faith, the price they have paid as Catholics.”
Already, O’Connor said, attitudes are changing among Cuban American exiles who joined church-sponsored trips to Cuba.
O’Connor said that at one Mass he celebrated here, Cuban Americans visiting their old parish church for the first time in nearly four decades were overcome with emotion, alternately weeping and laughing.
“The fact that this did turn into a kind of pilgrimage is a desirable thing and is bound to have a positive effect,” O’Connor said.