Pope Saint John Paul II's historic January 1998 trip to Cuba may be best remembered in the US for how the media quickly packed up and came home when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke - an event of transparently greater world-historical significance to the scandal-obsessed parochial American media. As for Pope Benedict XVI's 2012 visit to Cuba, the American media little noted nor long remembered it. But, with Pope Francis' current trip to what JFK famously called "that imprisoned island," the coverage is likely to be different. Partly that is due to the media's greater interest, indeed fascination, with the personality of Pope Francis (filtered for the most part through its own narrow lens of religious and historical ignorance and ideological preconceptions). Partly that is due to the evolving relationship between Cuba and the US (with the recent restoration of diplomatic relations itself having been facilitated by the Holy See). And largely that is due to the Pope's deliberate linking of his trip to Cuba with his visit to the US later this week.
If nothing else, that linkage ought to remind Americans that (despite how we understandably see ourselves) the US is not the center of the Pope's world. Indeed, if the World Meeting of Families' triennial meeting weren't happening here this year, it is quit likely that the Pope might not be coming to America at all. Unlike his three most recent predecessors (Blessed Paul VI, Saint John Paul II, and Benedict XVI), this Pope has never ever visited the US and seems to have shown no interest in ever doing so before. And it is actually possible that - as a Latin American - he may even consider his visit to Cuba to be as important or maybe even more important than the US part of his trip (especially if we subtract from the US visit the not specifically American, more international events of his trip - i.e., the Meeting of Families and the Address to the UN).
Actually, even the specifically Cuban component of the Pope's visit got relativized within the larger context of Latin American concerns at yesterday's Sunday morning Mass in Havana's Plaza de la Revolucion, when the Pope addressed the ongoing negotiations going on in the Cuban capital between Colombia and the FARC rebels. "We do not have the right to allow ourselves yet another failure on this path of peace and reconciliation,” the Pope said in regard to those negotiations.
There was a time - prior to the collapse of Soviet communism - when Cuba, as the Soviet Union's expensively subsidized colony in the Western Hemisphere, was a political threat to the rest of Latin America. But, since the end of the Soviet Empire left Cuba as an isolated outpost of nothing, it has become instead a very visible example of economic failure - a model obviously not to be followed. As with the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US, so too with the Pope's visit, every development in the Cuban story is certainly seen as an opportunity for hope - hope for some real and much needed change in Cuba's sad situation. Along with the Cuban people, most of whom must be getting more and more tired of Castroism's failed promises, we can only hope that the Pope's presence will be more than symbolic but will be a real harbinger of needed change. Even more so for the long-suffering Cuban Church, which struggles for the freedom it needs to begin the re-evangelization of that once-Catholic country, which first received the Gospel over 500 years ago.