After news of plans for a new and more open relationship between the United States and Cuba, the role of Pope Francis in negotiations is being highlighted. But, as Jaweed Kaleem points out at the Huffington Post, Pope John Paul II should be credited for strengthening the role of the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba:
“I think John Paul II is very happy right now,” said Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, a prominent American church leader who pastors to the largest Cuban-American community and last visited Cuba in 2012 for Pope Benedict XVI’s pilgrimage to the island. “When (John Paul II) went to Cuba, it made it okay for Catholics to go to church and be Catholic.” Not long after the pope’s visit, for example, Fidel Castro restored Christmas as a national holiday.
Wenski said the role of the Catholic Church, by far Cuba’s largest and most influential religious institution, has quickly grown in the intervening years, especially since Raul Castro came to power in 2008. Of the country’s 11 million residents, about 59 percent are Christian and most of those are Catholic, yet the country’s aging, dilapidated pre-revolution churches suffer from a shortage of priests, nuns and seminarians. Many Cubans practice their faith at home or through devotion to Our Lady of Charity, the island’s patron saint. Practices such as Santeria, which incorporate Catholic and West African spiritual practices, are popular alongside formal Catholic worship.