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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So what the Pope says in Cuba won't surprise anyone who has listened to him these past 20 years. "What's going to be dramatic," says Robert Sirico, a Catholic priest who runs the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich., "is that he says it in front of Castro." Cuba, he adds, is a great challenge for the Pope. "It's like spores waiting for a little water." Can he make freedom sprout even here?

The Pope's insistence on human rights, says Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, has shaped a "new moral doctrine." But unlike Fidel, John Paul II realizes that it makes no sense to try to impose that doctrine: people must be convinced that it is right to act according to certain values. "The Pope," says Navarro-Valls, "is not interested in beating people into submission but in showing them and convincing them this makes sense." John Paul II, says a papal aide, "won't come as a conquistador."

When he met for 35 minutes with Castro at the Vatican late in 1996, the Pope did not wag his finger or lecture the revolutionary Comandante. Instead, he listened. He let the eternally voluble Fidel talk. He treated him with the respect Castro craves. And he disarmed Fidel. Not only did the Cuban leader at long last issue the invitation for a pastoral trip, but also he gushed afterward about "the strong emotional impact" of their meeting, calling it a "miracle." He sang praises to the Pope's "greatness" and his "brilliant intellect."

A Cuban official close to Castro says the President was immensely "impressed in personal terms" and that a "mutual sympathy" developed between these two formidable men. They discovered common bonds in their goals. "Notwithstanding their philosophical differences," says this official, "they are two strong believers in the capacity of the human being to improve, to be a better man, to build a better society." For the aging revolutionary, there is no greater sin than quitting. In John Paul II he saw a man who has stuck by his principles, no matter what the opposition. He liked the Pope's resolute style.

The only uncertainty facing the serenely confident John Paul as he undertakes this historic mission is his health. He recovered slowly but well from an assassin's bullet in 1981; he survived colon surgery in 1992 and an inflamed appendix in 1996. But the bathroom fall that broke his leg in 1994 took an enormous toll on his physical capacities. The first skiing Pope can no longer schuss down slopes; his beloved mountain hikes have been replaced by slow strolls around his Vatican terrace. His public appearances have been reduced, though his attitude is, Don't stop until you drop.

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