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A HISTORIC PILGRIMAGE

Pope Exhorts Cubans Not to Leave Island

January 24, 1998|RICHARD BOUDREAUX and MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

CAMAGUEY, Cuba — Condemning the emptiness of "unchecked materialism," Pope John Paul II urged young Cubans on Friday not to abandon their Communist-ruled nation for capitalist cultures abroad, but also insisted that Cuba "raise her children in virtue and freedom."

The pope's plea, delivered in the nation's most Roman Catholic of cities, challenged a widely held article of faith on the island--that freedom and salvation from Fidel Castro's regime lie 90 miles across the Florida Straits, a waterway that has borne more than a million Cubans to exile.

Instead, John Paul urged 50,000 people at an outdoor Mass here, and a wider audience watching on television, to stay in Cuba, find salvation in its rejuvenated Catholic Church and work for a freer society based on Christian values.

"Do not look outside for what is to be found inside," he said, drawing applause from the crowd. "Do not leave for tomorrow the building of a new society in which the noblest dreams are not frustrated and in which you can be the principal agents of your own history."

The government's decision, hours before the Mass, to televise it live to the nation was another concession to the globe-trotting pontiff, who has used the first half of his five-day pilgrimage to condemn the dark sides of capitalism and communism, urge clemency for hundreds of Cuban prisoners and press for an end to the punishing U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

Beyond his carefully balanced political judgments, the pope is appealing directly to Cubans, believers and nonbelievers alike, to rediscover their country's 500-year-old Christian roots and redefine their national heroes--a theme he struck again in a Friday evening meeting with pro-government intellectuals.

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As he did Thursday in the first of his four outdoor Masses, the 77-year-old Polish pope mounted an altar Friday to lecture Cubans, in Spanish, about Christian values that were muffled by a government that declared itself atheist for three decades, until 1992.

"When young people live life 'their own way,' they idealize things from other countries, they allow themselves to be seduced by unchecked materialism, they lose their own roots and long for distractions," the pope said sternly. "The emptiness brought on by this behavior explains many of the evils which beset young people: alcohol, the abuse of sex, prostitution . . . opportunism, rejection of all legitimate authority, the desire to escape and to emigrate, the avoidance of commitment and responsibility."

In offering a Christian way out, the pontiff repeated a command that has become a slogan of his pilgrimage: "Do not be afraid to open your hearts to Christ!"

That line, spoken from a bright pink altar under a white canopy, also drew applause. The flag-waving crowd stood below, in a broad, palm-tree-lined plaza dominated by towering bas-relief images of Castro, Ernesto "Che" Guevara and other Communist guerrillas who fought their way to power in 1959.

John Paul, who is seeking greater freedom for his church in Cuba, met alone with Castro for 50 minutes Thursday evening, but neither side disclosed what transpired. The pope's more important mission, his aides say, is to reach out to ordinary Cubans and change their lives.

In addition to Friday's homily, John Paul brought a letter addressing the same themes to Cuba's young people.

The letter, to be distributed throughout the island, restates the church's opposition to all economic embargoes, calling them "deplorable because they hurt the most needy." But it cautioned that neither the U.S. embargo, in force since 1963, nor Cuba's political system should be blamed entirely for the island's problems. People, the pope said, need to change.

"Virtuous young people are what makes a country great," he wrote. "Cuba's future depends on you."

John Paul's appeal to young Cubans to stop dreaming of exile was meant to shake them up, said papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls. "The country is losing blood constantly, and the government is ineffective to stop the flow," he said. "The pope is telling Cubans: 'Don't leave, don't leave, you belong in Cuba. The best way to help Cuba is to stay.' And he's giving them a purpose for staying."

Cuba's Catholic Church began lobbying its parishioners against the option of exile several months ago. The stay-at-home message is crucial for rebuilding the Cuban church; for parishes to survive, they must have new parishioners.

In a homily days before the pope's arrival, Cardinal Jaime Ortega made an emotional and biting critique of Cuban American culture in South Florida, where most Cuban exiles live and where many have found material prosperity.

" 'What loneliness! What loneliness!' These are the words that I hear on the lips of every elderly person that lives there," Ortega said, recounting a visit to his two aunts there several years ago.

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