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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The Pope doesn't seem to care anymore what he looks like or how he walks and talks. "Se crollo, crollo [If I collapse, I collapse]," he barked at aides who recently suggested he skip a few of his normal appointments. He shrugs off suggestions of retirement with a joke: "Who would I give my letter of resignation to?" John Paul is determined to lead the church into the next millennium, says Richard John Neuhaus, an American priest and author recently in Rome. "He's not hesitating to exhibit his physical frailties," says Neuhaus, "which I think is intended both as a pastoral help to people with similar frailties and also as a sharing in the suffering of Christ." If the Parkinson's gets worse, he adds, "people could get used to a Pope in a wheelchair."

Those close to him say the Pope retains all the mental drive of his early days. Vatican aides say he has not dropped any of the reins of church government. "I've watched him deal with extremely complicated decisions," says a Vatican bishop, "and the way he works them through shows that he's still very sharp and in full control." Important decisions are "the Pope's and his alone."


Here in Havana, Cubans are of very mixed minds about the Pope's visit. "So many people do not even know who the Pope is," says Enrique Lopez Oliva, a professor of religious history at the University of Havana. Is he a President, a businessman? Is Fidel paying him to come? Even many Catholics are ignorant of the papal biography and doctrinal bent. In a country where abortion ends roughly 40% of all pregnancies and copulation begins in early adolescence, Cubans will be shocked by John Paul II's stern views on sex. His reverence for the family will seem odd in a society where illegitimacy is common.

Nonetheless, the Cuban government knows these five days are fraught with risk. The Pope has been as hard on Marxist repression as on "savage capitalism," and his critique of Castro's human-rights record in full view of 3,000 foreign journalists could sting. Instead of spotlighting a "normal" country at its most open, benign moment, the way Castro hopes, the press might fill their dispatches with lurid stories of teenage prostitutes and an oppressed, despairing citizenry.

"The Cubans are pretty smart about how they're playing this," says a senior State Department official in Washington. "They are unlikely to have gone ahead with the visit unless they thought they could control it." Castro is betting that he will reap significant rewards. His aides may bristle at the word, but legitimacy is something Fidel has always sought. Just appearing on the same stage with the Vicar of Christ lends a powerful measure of respectability to the Cuban Comandante. At the same time, the regime will seek to replenish the threadbare rhetoric of the revolution by emphasizing the moral link between Christian and socialist ideas. A papal critique of unbridled capitalism is anticipated by the socialist government. Officials hope the reception they accord the Pope will accelerate the rapprochement between religious and secular segments of society.

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