Clash Of Faiths

This week Pope John Paul II brings his message of freedom to Fidel Castro's Cuba as two of the world's giants collide

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And although Cuba's leaders adamantly deny that the visit is in any way political, Castro very much wants to hear the Pope condemn the U.S. embargo against Cuba. John Paul II has criticized American economic sanctions before, but Washington officials say the Vatican has assured them that the Pope will not castigate the U.S. directly. And they scoff at any notion that John Paul will move Castro to the kind of reforms that would prompt a reversal of U.S. policy. "Anyone who looks at this as a big opportunity for change in the relationship," says another State Department analyst, "will end up being disappointed."

It is here in Cuba itself that history will measure the Pope's impact. Ana, a 28-year-old single mother scraping by on 148 pesos ($6) a month, is a devout student of the Bible, religious but not Catholic. She expects "no benefits for me or my family" from the Pope's visit, though she is grateful that in his honor she was allowed to celebrate the "first true Christmas" of her life. She thinks she also owes a rare year-end ration of cooking oil to papal politics. Jannet Hernandez, a 13-year-old attending Mass on Sunday, is certain the Pope's visit "will change many things," though she cannot say what exactly. "What he leaves behind will be good," agrees Troadia Correa, 77, "but we do not know what it will be."

Religion professor Lopez expects the church to consolidate its position as an active participant in Cuban society and even expand its role. "Before, we were only inside our temples," he says. "Now the church is able to go out into the streets again." Caritas director Suarez thinks the impact will largely be personal. The Pope's message, he says, is not to be "politically active but to be personally active." A Cuban government official says the sign of improved relations with the church will offset human-rights criticism and favorably impress potential European investors. "Nothing will happen automatically because he was here, though there may be subtle consequences," says Alarcon. "But having everyone watching him here in a normal way, the same as if it were Paris or Chicago, is enough."

John Paul II will no doubt take pride in carrying off an effective mission into Castro's communist stronghold. He is asking the government to admit more foreign priests, expand church social work, permit access to the mass media. But he has little to lose; the Pope is convinced the battle between communism and Christianity has already been won.

As long as everything goes well, with peace, friendliness and abrazos all around, Fidel can also claim a personal coup. He proves he can withstand the challenge of this singularly anticommunist Pope. He plays host to the democratic world's greatest champion, his own head unbowed. "God has come to him," says an intense critic. "It's all about him and history." Fidel, many say, sees himself not merely as the head of a tiny nation but also as a player on the world stage, of equal status to the greatest figures of the 20th century. "When other men like that come to him, he can feel his stature is acknowledged, his historical position secured." The Pope, says spokesman Navarro-Valls, has never asked himself questions about his legacy. "He simply keeps carrying on his dialogue with modernity."

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