For those of us who exceed a certain age, our memories are some of the few privileges we can boast of in front of young people, that is, before Alzheimer is responsible for erasing them forever. In any case, for me the way in which the good and bad experiences come back to us, even at the least expected moments, is really curious. Among other many effects, the recent visit of His Holiness Pope Francis to Cuba had the capacity to make me recall an episode of the time in which I used to study in the University of Havana, around 1980.
As a result of that recollection, which has nothing to do with the visit by any pope, though it does with religion, it became evident to me how much we have been able to advance in terms of tolerance and intransigence, though there’s still a great deal to learn about the wise and necessary ability to listen and to accept others’ points of view.
The Supreme Pontiff, the highest-ranking authority of one of the oldest and most powerful institutions known by humanity, is giving personal examples of that tolerance and understanding. According to Frei Betto, author of books like Fidel and Religion, “Francis is a surprising Pope.” This is how the Dominican priest described him in an article titled “The Pope and Abortion,” where the Brazilian priest affirms that with a weekly frequency His Holiness “announces a novelty that makes the Catholic Church more faithful to Jesus and closer to the people.” And this observation by Frei Betto is not gratuitous, because it is based on that unusual vision of the prelate regarding questions of human and social interest so controversial for the Church like abortion, divorce and homosexuality.
Throughout the four-day papal visit to the island the media has been saturated by this message of forgiveness, peace and understanding toward believers and non-believers, and toward Cubans in and outside Cuba; a proposal to build bridges and open roads of reconciliation, according to the Pope’s own words. It was then that those 1980s came back to me, when I was a young University of Havana student and if anyone would have assured me that in a not-too-distant future the island would receive in 17 years the visit of not one but three popes, the least I would have thought then is that that person was crazy or had serious psychological problems.
And this was totally understandable because it was a time in which the ideological struggle being waged in the country barely recognised intermediate terms and things seemed to be much more defined – and perhaps that’s why they were more schematic – regarding ideological questions. If someone left the country he/she was plainly and simply considered a traitor. The meetings to repudiate those persons who would later become “Marielitos” left no doubt and something similar was happening with everything that was not clearly aligned to the principles of scientific communism and dialectical materialism, two of the subjects included in the study programme and which taught us how our future was being designed. And in that future it was very difficult to accept conceptions of the world that were not so scientific like religion, no matter which.
At this point my memory fails me and I cannot remember how many students were strolling through Old Havana and decided, out of pure curiosity, to enter the so-called midnight mass on that December 24, which was held in the old Cathedral. As I already said, they were young, didn’t have much money and less entertainment options. They saw the open and beautifully lit up church, where a spectacle unknown to them was taking place. Surely some of them must have had doubts about entering and luckily for them they continued their way, but several of them, students of the Faculty of Arts and Letters, let themselves be guided by their youthful enthusiasm and entered the holy grounds, without imagining the possible consequences of their action.
It could be that in the light of the time that has gone by those consequences today do not seem so disastrous, but I can affirm that for those young people it was, especially because a part of them were members of the Young Communist League, from which they were expelled despite the voices that defended them. Unfortunately, those criteria of understanding that aimed to assess the real meaning of that action by the young people, beyond the narrow schemes of exemplary nature, were rejected and were insufficient to revoke a decision that came from “above” and which judged that the very act of entering the church and attending a religious liturgy disqualified them as young communists. They stopped being an example for the rest of their comrades.
Time has passed and many things have changed among us, even those criteria that made it unthinkable that thousands of persons on the island could get together in the country’s most important plazas, in broad daylight and with the presence of the highest-ranking government and Communist Party officials, to listen to a mass given by the representative of God on earth.
I’m sorry I lost contact with those former study comrades who during those years had the innocent audacity to attend as simple spectators a midnight mass and paid a price for it, but I would have liked to know if here or wherever they are, the same thing happened to them as it did to me on the occasion of the Pope’s visit to the island, followed so much and commented in the foreign media and especially the national ones, in which it was affirmed that all of us Cubans were going to carry out the Pontiff’s demand and we were going to pray for him…even though we hadn’t learned how to pray. I ask myself if it reminded them of that episode of their lives. I would like to know if, as the Pope advises, they have known how to arm themselves with conciliation and forgive our sins. (2015)
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