A Cuban Jesuit priest talks about Pope Francis

Interview with Father Román Espada.

En horas de la mañana del lunes 21 de septiembre, el Papa partió hacia la ciudad oriental de Holguín.


Pope Francis’ apostolic trip to Cuba and the United States, between September 19 and 27, is analysed by Father Román Espada, a Cuban Jesuit priest, who paid great attention to the Holy Father’s trip to both nations and very kindly accepted to share his comments with this publication.

Father Román, what is the particular significance of the visit of Pope Francis to the island for the Society of Jesus in Cuba?


Ever since the visit of Pope Francis to Cuba was announced, the Society of Jesus felt pleased and hopeful for the visit to our nation of the first Jesuit Pope in Catholic history. To make public his socio-ecological thinking, expressed in his encyclical Laudato Si, on July 25 we began a seminar in our Loyola Centre which we titled “The green island dialogues with the blue planet: Cuban reflection on Laudato Si,” an encyclical which has been described by Frei Betto as the most important, most radical, most integral and most hopeful proposal we have today on our serious and concerning socio-ecological situation.


We have been following, chapter by chapter, the essential issues that the Pope proposes as an answer to the question, present in his encyclical: “What is happening in our common home?” Imminent Cuban scientists and researchers have been helping us to make an in-depth analysis of the socio-ecological issues that the Pope presents us with, such as climate change, environmental contamination, lack of water, socio-environmental degradation, the planet’s inequality, or the need for dialogue. That has been our hopeful and thankful way of waiting for him, of receiving him and of wanting to maintain him permanently present among us.


During his stay in Cuba the Pope was in Havana, Holguín and Santiago de Cuba. What are your impressions about the different subjects dealt with and the Bishop of Rome’s message during that tour?


His visit to Cuba was clear and transparent. It indelibly marks a before and after. He brought an agenda of pastoral compassion which he lived and shared with all, believers and non-believers, the people and the authorities. He identified himself as Missionary of Compassion and he achieved it. Style and content, gestures, actions and words always arose from his entrails of Universal Pastor, of Pastor of Compassion. In the reception and up to his farewell, the Cuban authorities and officials demonstrated kindness and nearness to the Pope. That was also the case during Fidel Castro’s visit, marked by affection.


The bishops of the dioceses he visited – Havana Archbishop Jaime Ortega; Holguín Bishop Emilio Aranguren; and Santiago de Cuba Archbishop Dionisio García – gave the Pope a historic and current vision of the Catholic work in Cuba.


The children were affectionate, free and creative with the Pope; the young people spoke to Francis of their dreams and of their current frustrations. He listened to them and took note of their aspirations and their needs, and encouraged them to dream big, to place hope and effort in making them come true, even if they fulfil them halfway. He asked them to cultivate social friendship with all; and insisted that they not give up on life or let themselves be forced to do so by others.


The priests and nuns, the seminarians, the deacons, priests, represented in the voice of a Daughter of Our Lady of Charity, shared with Francis their sorrows and hopes in his compassionate dedication to the poorest and most in need of the Cuban people. He spoke to them of the evangelic happiness of loving and serving those who suffer because they feel discarded by others.


The Pope blessed all Cuban families from inside the Santiago de Cuba Cathedral and asked them to be communities of love and human growth, characterised by dialogue and mutual understanding, and where the youngest and the oldest would be more cared for.


He spoke in private with President Raúl Castro and with the Catholic bishops. As we see their actions, we will find out about the matters they agreed on.


The merging of airports, streets, plazas, historic centres, churches and cathedrals, created an environment very similar to the one proposed by Francis in Laudato Si. The red, blue and white of our flag, of the national bird, the Cuban trogon, accompanied by the hopeful green of our palm trees, filled with colourful symbolism all the meeting spaces.


The Pope, always smiling and in good humour, spoke in a very Latin American Spanish, made livelier with two or three Argentinean idioms. His style and way of doing and relating with everyone were always illuminated by the humble, deep and sincere force of his wise convictions. There was nothing of authoritarianism, dogmatism, superiority, self-satisfaction in him.


What we have learned from this outstanding and faithful follower of Jesus of Nazareth, of Ignatius of Loyola and of Francis of Assisi is a great deal and very good.


In the United States Pope Francis was in three states and spoke at diverse institutions. What can you tell us of those actions?


Pope Francis’ U.S. visit was an authentic marathon of places, speeches, homilies, gestures and significant actions. He began in Washington where he honourably, frankly and affectionately spoke with President Obama, with congress members, with Catholic bishops and, as always, with large and affectionate popular groups.


Since he arrived in the United States, the Pope expressed solidarity, fully and radically, with the immigrants, documented and undocumented, and with their families. He told them that a nation built by immigrants could not mistreat or reject the new immigrants. And he said: “I am the son of an immigrant family.”


He asked the senators and Congress representatives, who gave him a standing ovation on several occasions, forcefully and with conviction that they abolish the death penalty, and that they accept and help the immigrants.


He reminded the bishops that their mission was that of being compassionate pastors of real persons, especially of the most needy and mistreated.


The Pope recognised the dedication, apostolic sanctity of Fray Junípero Serra. In this way he strongly valued the emigrant presence in the construction of the U.S. nation.


In New York, the Pope joined, at Zero Point, in the pain accumulated there, the victims of the merciless terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and their families.


In Harlem, which housed the pain of the abused and mistreated blacks and today shelters that of the persecuted and rejected immigrants, he spoke of solidarity and hopeful education.


He asked the immigrants to incorporate into their lives the new values, not forgetting or spurning the validity of their own cultures of origin.


At the United Nations he called for promoting peace in peace, respecting and promoting, always honourably, the autonomy of each nation and people, especially that of the poorest, most needy and mistreated.


In Madison Square Garden, in Central Park, in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, he festively shared with thousands and thousands his faith and hope for the world he proposes to us in Laudato Si.


In Philadelphia’s Independence Hall he recognised and praised the great values that gave origin to the U.S. nation: liberty and unity.


He reminded the prisoners he visited that they were imprisoned but not excluded.


He encouraged the families gathered in the world congress, the main goal of his visit, to become family ecosystems of love, understanding and mutual aid, very especially caring for the youngest and the oldest.


To better understand and analyse in depth the content and meaning of this tour of Pope Francis through Cuba and the United States I suggest the reading of The Great Reformer: Francis, Portrait of a Radical Pope, by Austen Ivereigh. (2015)





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