In the book J’ai senti battre le coeur du monde (I heard the heartbeat of the world) Cardinal Roger Etchegaray gives a series of interesting interviews to the author, Bernard Lecomte. Mgr Etchegaray was Archbishop of Marseille from 1970 to 1985 before entering the Roman Curia where he served as President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace from 1984 to 1998 and was President of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum from 1984 to 1995. 

He was appointed cardinal in 1979. He was a close collaborator to Pope John Paul II who entrusted him with the most delicate and serious missions. In 2003, when the Vatican opposed the Iraq invasion, he was sent as an envoy to persuade the United States to refrain from war. 

Mgr Etchegaray came to the attention of the international audience on Christmas Eve of 2009 when he was injured in an attack on Pope Benedict XVI in St Peter’s Basilica. In this article I will focus on Cardinal Etchegaray’s mission in Cuba.

The cardinal set foot in Cuba on December 23, 1988 for a 10-day visit. Christmas in Cuba was a day like any other, being in the peak of the harvest season for cane sugar, which is the barometer of the Cuban economy.

Christmas was only re-established as a feast after the visit of Pope John Paul II two years later. Although still shackled after 30 years from the Castro revolution, the Church in Cuba was re-emerging in the new Cuban society, especially following the ‘National Meeting of the Faithful’ in 1986, presided by the Argentine Servant of God Cardinal Eduardo Francisco Pironio. 

On December 29, 1988, Cardinal Etchegaray gave a conference on the social doctrine of the Church, in the Seminary of Havana, in the presence of Marxist leaders. Only half of the population was Catholic at the time, and not even the Afro-Cuban magic of Santeria could resist the scientific rationalism put up against religion. 

On December 30, the cardinal was received at the Revolution Palace by the Vice-President of the Council of the State, Carlos Rafael Rodriguez who, among other things, admitted to the cardinal that his aunt was cared for by the religious. This encouraged the cardinal to underline the social contribution that the Church provides in the health domain, which is the pride of the Cuban regime. That night, the cardinal was accommodated just below the office of Fidel Castro, at the Palace of the Revolution.

The meeting with Castro was a turning point in the relations between Cuba and the Vatican. The cardinal came face to face with Castro who was assisted by his confidant, José Felipe Carneado. On opening the packet containing a memento offered by the cardinal on behalf of the Pope, Castro was pleased to find a book about the Vatican and exclaimed: “Nobody has yet dared to invite me, although I have spent so many years in a religious college!” 

The cardinal was made to narrate for long, as if being in confession, about his personal life, and Castro seemed to be attentive to every detail. He was very surprised to know that the cardinal was a Basque and repeated several times: “A French Basque Cardinal!”

Castro asked the cardinal whether Pope John Paul II had recovered his health following the 1981 attempt on his life: “How does he succeed to do all that he is doing? He is the most active Pope of the last three centuries!”

He also asked a lot on the meeting of Assisi which seemed to interest him so much: “Were the Jews there? Did the Buddhists have their leaders present? And the Hindus? The Sikhs? Does the Church keep relations with the Shiite Muslims? When I was a student at the Jesuits, I would have never imagined a meeting of that kind!”

In such a warm atmosphere, Castro showed the cardinal that he followed closely and with interest his visit to the island and especially the enthusiasm of the Christians: “I wonder what a person possesses to conquer the world in this way. And meeting you tonight I realised that the Pope has sent us his most ‘dangerous’ representative! This makes me happy, because I see that you work primarily towards peace.”

The cardinal acknowledged the interest that Castro showed in Africa – Angola and Mozambique: those regions where the Cuban soldiers discovered people poorer than them. Then he asked on the position of Pope John Paul II on the subject of national debt. When the cardinal mentioned the encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis, he was surprised and reacted in a disarming way: “I need to have a complete collection of the documents of the Pope.”

Castro then touched on the themes of environment and ecology, on which he seems to be so sensitive. “The excess of carbon in the atmosphere can cause draught, cyclones, river and sea flooding; there is a risk of worldwide tragedies.” He wished that the Pope would speak on all this.

As to a possible visit to Cuba, this was his comment: “It depends on the Pope! It will happen when he decides. He will not come only for the Catholics, but also for non-Catholics. His visit will be welcomed by the government and by the people.” 

Castro made this request to the cardinal: “When he comes, I would like to spend a lot of time with him to discuss certain themes which concern us both…” The cardinal promised to convey this request to the Pope.

Another objective was to counter the atheistic ideology which did not even authorise the local Church to exercise its charitable activities

The day after this meeting, on New Year’s Day, the cardinal celebrated Mass in a cathedral that was too small to hold more than 4,000 faithful, and this in a country where public meetings are prohibited. Strengthened by the meeting with Castro, it was not difficult to provoke an immense shout: “May he come! May he come!”, which was also interpreted in the international media to refer to the visit of John Paul II, which however, required 10 long years to materialise.

In the meantime, there was the visit which the cardinal negotiated with Castro’s aide, José Felipe Carneado, at the Vatican. The cardinal visited Cuba again in 1992 and 1994 and the motive was a humanitarian one, as the country was going through a critical period due to the US sanctions and the disintegration of the USSR. 

Another objective was to counter the atheistic ideology which did not even authorise the local Church to exercise its charitable activities and to benefit from a “Catholic” solidarity. From then on, few spoke any more of the papal visit. In spite of this context of tension between the Vatican and Havana, Cardinal Etchegaray widened his contacts with Carlos Lage Davila, a member of the politburo of the Cuban Communist Party and executive secretary of the State’s Council, and Ricardo Allarcon de Queeda, the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

During these two visits, the cardinal had the opportunity to meet President Castro again on December 17, 1992. The cardinal reported to him that on that morning he had led a popular pilgrimage to the sanctuary of St Lazarus, the patron saint of Havana, 30km from the capital. Castro said that his mother used to join the pilgrimage every year and, as a child, took him with her. Then Castro plainly asked how many saints there are in heaven. At first embarrassed, the cardinal grouped the saints not included in the liturgical calendar but which the Church celebrates on All Saints Day. He added that, maybe at that very moment, his mother and Castro’s were next to each other, singing together the glory to God. 

Both looked at each other like two children, and the cardinal noticed a tear trickling down Castro’s cheek.

Now and again Castro referred to books he had read. He asked about the Church and about the Gospel. The cardinal answered that it was the first time that he spoke about the Gospel with a head of a Marxist state. Castro’s reply was: “In my life there are two important things: Marxism and the Gospel!”

During his visit in November 1994, in the presence of Caridad Diego Bello, a senior secretary of the Communist Youths, the cardinal opened a social conference on the ‘Reconciliatory mission of the Church in Cuba’. The episcopate was to set up the commission Justice and Peace. 

The cardinal had discretely met leaders of the opposition, and on the evening of Friday 18, Fidel Castro came by surprise to the nunciature where the cardinal was at lunch with the bishops.

The Cuban people had to wait until January 21, 1998 to welcome Pope John Paul II, already leaning forward and aided by a walking stick, to hear him exclaim on his arrival: “May Cuba open itself to the world and the world open itself to Cuba!” During those five days, Fidel Castro never left the shadow of his illustrious host.

On his return to Rome, speaking on the itinerary of the visit, the Pope modestly declared: “This visit gave me the opportunity to give a voice to the Christian heart of the Cubans.” 

Cardinal Etchegaray’s role in such dialogue between the Vatican and Cuba is unquestionable. But such a story also gives credit to President Castro and to the Cuban people.

Joe Galea is a member of the society of Christian doctrine.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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