(NCR) On his first day in Cuba, images of joy and beauty inspired by Pope Benedict XVI’s pilgrimage to the island were offset by sinister, controlling gestures from the Cuban regime.
And just below the surface roils a culture clash, a weltanschauung face-off, pitting two comprehensive philosophies of the universe against each other: Christianity vs. communism.
From the Pope’s first hour in Cuba, the afternoon of March 26, observers could sense the deep contrast.
The Holy Father, dazzling in white from head to ankle, projecting his typically humble demeanor, was met by the intense visage of President Raul Castro in a business suit and rose-tinted sunglasses.
Twenty-one old cannons punctuated the blazing day with a salute that was too close for comfort; an honor guard goose-stepped across the worn tarmac in a vaguely anachronistic military greeting.
Referencing the historical visit of Blessed John Paul II to Cuba 14 years ago, the Pope credited his predecessor with initiating a new phase of cooperation between Church and state on the island, while calling for “greater progress” in the future, especially regarding “the indispensable public contribution that religion is called to make in the life of society.”
The Pope described progress as requiring “an ethics which focuses on the human person” as opposed to the self-described needs of the state and its rulers.
He aligned himself, several times, with the aspirations of “all Cubans, wherever they may be,” for justice, peace, liberty and reconciliation. With more than 2 million Cubans comprising an active diaspora, most living in the United States, the Church has long emphasized reconciliation to defy physical separation and reduce animosity.
For his part, President Castro railed against the 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, a Cold War policy the Cuban leadership has blamed for most of its own economic failure.
He also testily assured the Pope that Cuba is already “changing all that needs to be changed” — thank you very much.
A few hours later, the Pope arrived in Antonio Maceo Revolution Square to offer Mass on the Solemnity of the Annunciation before at least 200,000 people. The plaza was a welcoming sea of radiant people. Ecstatic crowds of jubilant Cubans surged to embrace the popemobile.
Pope Benedict made his way to a delicate marine-blue-and-white altar structure under arches that created a giant “M” for Mary. Behind the altar, a 50-foot sculpture of a 19th-century independence leader on a rearing horse (facing 23 massive machetes) created a dramatic backdrop.
A local choir of enthusiastic singers and musicians animated the assembly.
But just before doves were released from the altar to start Mass, a young man in a baseball cap who began shouting “Down with Communism!” and “Freedom!” in Spanish was tackled by plainclothes security.
As authorities hustled the protester away, a burly man in a Red Cross T-shirt was caught on film slapping the man, then beating him over the head with a pole.
There were other disturbing signs: Erratic Twitter posts reported that some regime opponents were forcibly blocked from attending the Mass.
The state entity that controls electronic communication on the island decided to restrict Internet access and SMS capability until March 29 — after the Pope departs Cuba.
And unlike most open-air Masses in cities around the world, there were no jumbo screens, meaning that few participants could even see the Pope, let alone participate in the liturgy.
So the somber Mass in Santiago de Cuba unfolded, led by a clearly exhausted Holy Father. His homily was a serious catechism on the significance of the Annunciation, honoring family, commitment and, of course, the Blessed Mother.
He acknowledged the many daily challenges facing Cuban families struggling to survive under stress and in dismal living conditions, which affect almost everyone, outside the ruling elite.
Pope Benedict ended with a forward-looking vision aimed at the island’s souls: “I appeal to you to reinvigorate your faith, that you may live in Christ and for Christ, and armed with peace, forgiveness and understanding, that you may strive to build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity and which better reflects the goodness of God.”
Then scores of neatly dressed believers received Communion from the Pope’s delicate hands.
Above, everyone gazed the diminutive 400-year-old figurine of Our Lady of Charity, whose jubilee anniversary provided reason for the papal visit.
And in her honor, the Pope ended the liturgy by bestowing on her a golden rose, an ancient Catholic tradition and the 12th golden rose Benedict has given. In this case, it seemed to reward the Marian image for receiving countless prayers and tears throughout the years.
The golden rose also honors the Cuban people, since the miraculous icon is their patroness.
As the Holy Father turned from Our Lady, he was seized by Raul Castro, who had hurtled up steep steps to meet the Pope on the altar.
It was as though the president had awkwardly, and against any protocol, injected himself into the Mass.
Like a theatrical producer eager to garner kudos for a successful performance, Raul demonstrated that he intends to take credit — and try to control — every aspect of the Pope’s time on the island.
Pope Benedict overnighted in a priestly residence in the foothills of the Sierra Maestro Mountains, where the basilica of El Cobre holds Our Lady of Charity. He will pray in the shrine this morning before flying to Havana, where he meets in the afternoon with, once again, Raul Castro.