Opinion: Pope Francis on his way to Cuba, where religious liberty is a mirage

There may be no more pure and shining symbol of the universal human longing for justice and mercy than the Ladies in White of Cuba. These are the wives, mothers and sisters of imprisoned human rights activists who refuse to accept that in this day and age, in the Western Hemisphere, a whole people should live with no self-determination at all. As they walk silently to mass these women appear to Cubans as an emanation of the astonishing courage of the jailed men they represent.

Francis’ personal history as a priest and bishop in Argentina is rich with his love of the poor and his perfect identification with them. He calls all of us to solidarity with them.

— Dr. Grazie Pozo Christie

Another symbol of faith and good will will be visiting the island next month: Pope Francis. In his short papacy he has stepped with cheerful abandon across lines that seemed impassable, lines drawn between rigid ways of thought and opposed camps. His intervention in Cuban-American relations is one example, brought vividly to life recently as an American flag flew for the first time in Havana.

Challenging the status quo is the Pope's modus operandi, and comes from his faithful conviction that the first job of the Church he shepherds is that of evangelization. In fact, that is the Church’s reason for being. It calls for her to “go out from herself toward the existential peripheries and helps her to be the fruitful mother who lives from the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.”

The peripheries are not very far off these days, certainly. The Christian message of inviolable human dignity from conception to natural death, the transcendent value of the family, and the certainty that it is sacrifice, not self-actualization, that leads to joy, lies like a small green oasis in a cultural desert. The dessert is full of parched souls that are awash in material goods, in the case of Europe and the U.S., but suffering from the loneliness that comes from social fragmentation and superficiality.

To this, the Pope counters that people have a dignity that is priceless and worth far more than things. And he reminds us over and over that “ Every threat to the family is a threat to society itself. The future of humanity … passes through the family.” He has exhorted young people steeped in a throwaway culture to step into marriage without fear, telling them that a faithful and fruitful marriage will bring them joy.

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In other parts of the world, the problem is crushing poverty, many times created by a corrupt and greedy ruling class that closes its eyes to the suffering around them. Francis’ personal history as a priest and bishop in Argentina is rich with his love of the poor and his perfect identification with them. He calls all of us to solidarity with them, saying  “…we Christians are called to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it.”

Cuba is another kind of desert, where the people thirst for basic liberties that we in the West take for granted. One of these is the simple right to honest work that ennobles by rewarding effort and industriousness. In Cuba there is no minimum wage but a maximum wage, and it is tiny. No matter how hard you work there, you can’t make enough to do more than barely scrape by. The European resorts that employ thousands of Cubans pay the government in real hard currency and the workers are paid by the rulers in worthless pesos. The Pope understands the horror of this. He has said that there is “no worse material poverty…than that which makes it impossible to earn a living ..”  That is the reality for most Cubans, who mostly spend their days “resolviendo” or finding a way to get their hands on the most essential necessities, their natural and honest industriousness thwarted.

Of course, when the Pope visits Cuba in search of the “existential peripheries” the most glaring one will be the lack of even more basic human rights. Religious liberty is a mirage on the island, where churches are open but empty. Just last week, 50 Ladies in White were detained on their way to mass.

Francis is no stranger to human rights abuses. He was head of the Argentine Jesuits during the country’s “Guerra Sucia”, when many of his order’s priests were tortured and killed. He helped many priests and religious to leave the country, at great risk to himself. He understands that it is a lack of religious freedom that has taken a country that was almost 100 percent Catholic to a dismal 27 percent where only a few attend mass regularly.

The peripheries are where the Pope, and the Church, must go. I am hopeful that once there, the faith and joy that shine from his cheerful face will open hearts and doors, even prison doors. A culture of radical individuality in the West, the lack of concern for the poor in developing countries, and the absence of basic liberties in countries like Cuba, all these are ripe for evangelization and transformation. Human flourishing, and joy, are in the balance.