Francis hints at enhanced Catholic Church role for Cuba

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Pope Francis and Cuba's Fidel Castro shakes hands in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015. The Vatican described the 40-minute meeting at Castro's residence as informal and familial, with an exchange of books. (AP Photo/Alex Castro)

HAVANA, Cuba - With three symbolic visits, Pope Francis on Sunday seemed to hint at an agenda for his journey to this officially secular island nation: an enhanced role for the Catholic Church after the Castro brothers depart the scene.

"What kind of hope does have a young Cuban have at this moment of history?" he asked a gathering of young people during an evening visit to a cultural center here.

This was not just any cultural center, however. It is dedicated to Felix Varela, a 19th-century advocate of Cuban independence and a hero in modern, Castro-era Cuba. Subtle or not, Francis' presence was reminder of something the regime likes to ignore: that Varela was a Catholic priest.

"We need to know who we are and where we came from," the pope told his young audience. The world needs young people who will "journey together," he said, "in building a country like that which Jose Marti dreamed of, 'With all, and for the good of all.'"

Hours earlier the Argentine-born Francis paid a private visit to Fidel Castro, the aging, ailing lion of the Cuban Revolution. Along with books by two Cuban Catholic thinkers – one of them Castro's university professor - the pontiff gave Castro a copy of Laudato Si', his recent encyclical admonishing the world's wealthy that environmental depredation is a moral wrong that gravely oppresses the poor.

Francis met Fidel, 89, at his home, along with his wife and family members, including grandchildren.

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the pope's spokesman, said they had a "relaxed, friendly" conversation that touched on "protecting the environment and the great problems of the contemporary world."

He and a cadre of his bishops met Fidel's younger brother Raul, 84, about an hour later at the Palace of the Revolution, which looked like a tall office tower. The two men paired off for private talks.

Raul Castro, who succeeded his older brother as president in 2008, has said he will step down in 2018.

"This is a regime that doesn't know where it's going," Eusebio Moja-Leon, professor of government at Georgetgown University, said in an interview shortly before Francis arrival. "It's a weakened state, a less capable state than it was 10 or 15 years ago," he said. "And Raul is trying to shepherd it into the post-Castro period – a period which I suppose looms large for his brother and himself."

Preserving the regime's longtime but tattered social contract - in the form of a mostly socialist economy that discourages wealth acquisition and class division with universal education and health care - seems of paramount concern to Castro, Moja-Leon and others say. And it appears that Castro may see the Catholic Church under Francis as some sort of guardian of that social contract in the years ahead.

"One of the key points of consensus seems to be that both sides want to protect the social contract that the revolution delivered, even though it's fraying," said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow and foreign policy at the Brookings Institute."

That the Catholic Church might play such a role would have been unthinkable in the five decades when fiercely atheistic Fidel ran the country with an iron fist. He exiled many of the foreign-born Catholic missionaries who staffed the nation's parishes and schools before the 1959 revolution.

He also closed the Catholic schools, shut down religious publications and access to discouraged religious worship, and declared Cuba an officially atheist nation.

In the early 1990s Fidel relented somewhat, and declared the nation merely "secular." While he greeted Pope John Paul II cordially on his first papal visit here in 1998, most observers agree that the celebrated visit ushered in no sweeping changes to the culture.

But since his election in March 2013, Francis' concern for the poor and marginalized has evidently resounded with Raul so much that the long-marginalized Catholic Church appears to be enjoying new esteem.

While many Cubans identify nominally as Catholic and baptize their children, fewer than 10 percent attend Mass regularly, making Cuba one of the least Catholic nations of Latin America.

Francis is credited with initiating the private talks that led to recently restored diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, and after meeting with the pope at the Vatican in May, Castro told reporters he was so touched he was considering a return to the church.

"I'm serious," he said when laughter broke out.

Dressed in a suit and tie, he attended the Mass Francis celebrated Sunday in Revolution Square. And when he and Francis exited the Palace of the Revolution after their private talk, Castro clutched his hand at length and repeatedly patted his arm.

What Francis and Castro might have talked about remains a matter of speculation.

"The pope has to work in a pretty contained environment," said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow and foreign policy analyst for the Brookings Institute. "I think he'd like to see the reopening of Catholic schools, but the government would have a hard time giving that up." Making education the job of the state was a "pillar of the revolution," Piccone said.

Who Francis might name to succeed 78-year-old Cardinal Jaime Ortega as archbishop of Havana could be decisive, observers say, but Francis has so far not indicated who that might be.

Moja-Leon, who also serves as director of Georgetown's Cuba XXI Project, said that depending who ascends to the top leadership position, the church "could be the landing space for reformists" of the political system if there emerges a true parliamentary system with rival political parties.

As such the church might lend its implicit support to the values of one political party, he said, "But it would not likely want to be positioned as the lead mediator or facilitator" of a reform movement itself, he said, since that could make it enemies and weaken its role.

Rather, it may take a behind-the-scenes role, as it did in facilitating the secret talks that led to the resumption of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

"Better relations between the two nations will probably lead to greater freedom of religion," Moja-Leon said. "Because at the end of the day the church's primary interest is to protect its own interest."