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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Deep inside Havana's Palacio De La Revolucion is the spare, book-lined office from which Cuba is ruled. It lies down a corridor lined with columns of rough native marble and ferns from the Sierra Maestra, recalling the famous mountain redoubt where the revolution was born almost 40 years ago. Few are allowed to penetrate to the heart of the last socialist bastion in the western hemisphere, one of a handful of communist regimes struggling to ride out the 20th century. Here is where Fidel Castro secretly pulls the strings guiding his country. And where he still pursues with unswerving dedication the same sacred mission he began decades ago: preservation of the revolution.

Let us imagine Fidel Castro there one day sometime in 1995. He is wrestling with complex, politically dangerous solutions to the crushing failure of his Marxist economy, but at last his nation is beginning to emerge, inch by painful inch, from the darkest years of the "special period," when the world predicted that his country and his government would collapse, just as did that of the Soviet Union. He decides one salve to the trauma is to go ahead with an idea that has intrigued him for some time: a visit by Pope John Paul II.

The Pope too has his inner sanctum, a tiny private chapel off his sparsely decorated bedroom, which is adorned with a large bronze crucifix and a small icon of the "Black Madonna" of Czestochowa, symbol of Polish nationalism. Each morning and evening he privately speaks to God there, communing with his one true superior to shape the mission he too has pursued with relentless single-mindedness for 20 years: Go forth and spread the word.

His is a highly public reign, not limited to words and gestures. Whether preaching from the throne of St. Peter or from some makeshift altar in one of the 116 countries he has visited, John Paul II can have a powerful, concrete impact not only on the conduct of millions of Catholics but also on the unfolding of world events. In his moral vigor, he too is a revolutionary force.

Millions around the globe will be watching with fascination as these two giants of the 20th century collide this week on the little island of Cuba. The world according to Marx will touch hands with the word of God. A 100-year-old ideology that proposed a collective paradise of social justice and economic equality on earth will confront a 2,000-year-old belief in the eternal power of devotion to the divine and reverence for human dignity.

The Pope's goal is nothing less than the global establishment of a completely Christian alternative to the once alluring Marxist philosophies of this age. Yet even after communism imploded in virtually every other corner of the planet, Fidel Castro remains faithful, a true believer in a god that failed. "History will absolve me," he proclaimed at the start of his revolution, and he believes it will absolve him still. John Paul II is equally certain that his religion will one day soon sweep away even this last vestige of godless communism.

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