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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In 1991 Castro rescinded the ban against Christians' joining the Communist Party, and in 1992 he declared Cuba a secular, not an atheist, state. Sometime around 1995, Castro regained enough equilibrium to reopen serious talks with the Vatican. Some speculate that he was more relaxed, more confident he would not be overthrown. Some say he was convinced that what the Pope had done to galvanize Poland's anticommunist crusade could not be replicated through the weak Cuban church. Some think he realized it was time to embrace the religious hunger in the nation and find ways to dampen discontent. But he was probably driven as much by practical concerns as Cuba begged for European investment to sustain its hard climb out of economic catastrophe. The more Castro wanted foreign money, the more he had to recast Cuba in an acceptably Western light. A visit from the Pope would help solve so many of these problems.


No mystery shrouds what this Pope is up to. His ambitions and his methods have been plain to see ever since his ascent to the throne of St. Peter. He is the quintessential missionary: this most traveled of Pontiffs believes absolutely in the personal laying on of hands, and if his message is often politically incendiary, it is invariably couched in the lofty language of Christian values.

Even if John Paul is physically slower these days, his pulpit is still the world. He spends hours every day writing by hand the stream of speeches, homilies, letters to bishops, even best-selling books, that get his message out. He continues a punishing daily round of public Masses, official audiences, meetings with visiting bishops, working breakfasts, lunches and dinners. When he is preparing a foreign trip, he uses his morning Mass to practice the appropriate language, though Spanish is one of the eight he speaks fluently.

"Sometimes at lunch with bishops, he will joke about his popular appeal," says Paul Cardinal Poupard. "He will say, 'That's the charisma of Peter.'" Yet intimates also say he is insistent that his role as Pope not be confused with his own person. He doesn't use the papal we but always says, "I think," "I believe," "I wonder." He is a good listener who asks questions and puts people at ease, says a senior Vatican official. "After five minutes you forget you're talking to the Pope. It is like friends talking over coffee." Though he devotes much of his attention to weighty subjects, there are also lighter moments. "He likes to tell stories, anecdotes, jokes," says this official. "He has a good sense of humor."

In his dealings with Cuba, the Pope has always insisted on the same huge outdoor Masses, dramatic rallies, religious pilgrimages to national shrines and high state meetings he has turned to such advantage in country after country, right wing or left. There is a remarkable clarity about this Pope: he believes that preaching the Gospel means promoting human rights, that Christ cannot be excluded from man's history anywhere in the world and that there is no future if the dignity of the individual is trampled upon. He remains as determined to rekindle Catholic faith and promote Christian values among the lingering remnants of communism as he was when Marxism was in its full flower.

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