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A HISTORIC PILGRIMAGE

Throng Hears Message of 'Father From Rome'

Cuba: Pope urges family values, decries abortion. Some at provincial Mass aren't sure who he is.

January 23, 1998|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA CLARA, Cuba — The crowd was the largest ever for a religious service in Communist-ruled Cuba, and at one edge they were debating the identity of the holy man who brought it together.

"International leader of the Baptists?" ventured Guillermo Sepero, 24, squinting at the distant white-robed figure elevated above the sports field.

"No," answered his friend, Oscar Villa, 18. "He's the leader of all Christians."

"No, no, no!" insisted Junior Rodriguez, 16, with enough conviction to settle the argument. "The pope is the leader of the world's Roman Catholics, the successor to St. Peter. He's Polish but lives in the Vatican, which is inside Rome, in Italy."

Many Cubans who turned out Thursday for the island's first spiritual encounter with a pope said they had gained a clear idea of John Paul II's identity only in recent months when the government allowed the island's beleaguered Catholic Church to publicize his visit.

Interviews with crowd members showed that most worshipers have only a vague understanding of John Paul's teaching and little idea how it can influence society in the last Spanish-speaking country to welcome him.

But that did not dampen the enthusiasm of the 50,000 worshipers, Communist Party supporters and curiosity-seekers who gathered here around a raised altar in the shape of a thatched hut, waving Cuban flags and cheering when the 77-year-old pontiff arrived in his popemobile.

Juan Pablo, amigo / El pueblo esta contigo! they chanted in rhyme. (John Paul, our friend, the people are with you!)

"People cannot tell you who he is or what he teaches with theological precision, but they know he's the father from Rome who hasn't forgotten us," said Father Arturo Gonzalez, a local priest.

On an island that was officially atheist in the three decades before 1992, that is a huge shift.

Gonzalez and other clergy spent months before the pope's arrival Wednesday on a name-recognition campaign. They distributed hundreds of thousands of pamphlets with John Paul's biography. Cuba's cardinal went on national television to explain the 2,000-year-old papacy. A recent Saturday catechism in most Cuban Catholic parishes was entitled "Who is the pope?"

Celia Sosa, 25, said she began learning about the pontiff only in recent weeks, after her father, a militant atheist, became ill and was hospitalized. Freed from his intimidation, she began going to church and learned of the pope's visit.

"We came because we have the same faith in the pope as we do in God," said Milba Isajire, 30, who accompanied Sosa from Cienfuegos to the papal Mass here. "He brings faith and hope to the Cuban people to find the road we need."

But few Cubans at the Mass were able to spell out what that road is. Thursday's homily urged Cubans to recover Christian family values, to make the family the building block of a democratic civil society. The pope preached against divorce, abortion and sexual promiscuity--all disturbingly high in Cuba.

Cubans who paid attention reacted much as Catholics do in other countries where John Paul has delivered this same message: They applauded the ideal while doubting they could live up to it.

"Our society today is a bit lost, the young people above all," said Yosvani Perez, 23. "We want to believe in something, but it's unlikely that the church's teaching can change the sexual behavior of a whole generation."

Perez described himself as a divorced father with one child, an assertion that drew laughter from male companions at the Mass, who claimed he had fathered at least four others. Perez just shrugged.

"Cuba is too poor and the pressures on families are too great," said Caridad Jimenez, 34, a divorcee who was leaving the Mass early to check on a young child at home. "We cannot always be good Christians."

Tired or bored by long hours in the tropical sun, thousands of others drifted away during the two-hour service, leaving what John Paul called the "immense open-air church" occupied by less than half its capacity of 120,000. Many who remained stood in small groups and chatted or sat on the grass eating picnic lunches.

Their restlessness contrasted sharply with papal Mass-goers in Poland, Brazil and other devout Catholic countries, who fall into reverent silence when the pope stands before them. Some Cubans said they meant no disrespect; the same kind of Caribbean informality often provokes distracted chatter among Cuban Communists summoned en masse to hear their leader, Fidel Castro.

Other Cubans said the crowd's behavior reflected just how shallow the faith is on an island where 40% of the 11 million inhabitants are nominally Catholic but as few as 150,000 attend Mass regularly. Cubans also are unaccustomed to outdoor religious services, which are popular throughout Latin America but have been banned here.

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