Years ago, when I was in the seminary, I became friends with a fellow seminarian who is now Father Manuel Rios, pastor of Saint Mary of the Assumption Parish, in Elizabeth, N.J., and who remains a dear friend of mine. Manny’s family came to this country when he was a young man to live in West New York, N.J. Many times I stayed at Manny’s house and was spoiled by his mother’s wonderful cooking and the warmth of the wider Cuban community who lived in great numbers along Bergenline Avenue that ran through such places as Union City and West New York.
It wasn’t hard to pick up after a short time being around the exile Cuban community in this area, known as “Havana on the Hudson,” that they had no time for Fidel Castro. They viewed him as a brutal dictator who imposed great suffering on those who opposed his brand of Marxism that included suppression of religion on the island.
Since his death the other week, both political and religious leaders have worded their responses and condolences very carefully. It is because of his rather duplicitous legacy on the world scene. The vast majority of Cubans prior to Castro were devout Roman Catholics. In fact, Castro was baptized and raised in the Catholic Church as a child, but would later say in an interview in a documentary that “I have never been a believer.”
When Castro suppressed all Catholic institutions in Cuba in 1962, Saint John XXIII excommunicated him.
Of course, Roman Catholics were not the only religious community affected by Castro’s anti-religious sentiments and persecutions. The Jewish community which numbered over 30,000 before his revolution is presently down to fewer than 1,000 living in Cuba today.
It really was not until the 1990s that Castro begun loosening his vice grip on religious freedom on the island. In 1992 he actually allowed practicing Catholics to join the Communist Party in Cuba. His rhetoric about religion also started changing at this time, describing his country as “secular” rather than his earlier description of “atheist.”
In 1998, Saint John Paul II visited Cuba, the first pope to ever visit the island. Castro and John Paul treated each other with respect and dignity during the visit. Castro even donned secular clothes rather than his usual fatigues (used to continue the notion of revolution). The result of that meeting was that Castro formally reinstated Christmas Day as an official celebration since he abolished permission to celebrate Christmas in 1969. He also allowed for religious processions to resume again. The pope sent him a telegram at that time thanking him for this new permission for Christians.
Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I came to Cuba to consecrate the Orthodox Cathedral and bestowed an honor on Castro for building and donating the church in the heart of Havana.
In 2012 Castro had a 30 minute audience with Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to Cuba. Benedict, who advocated ending the American embargo on Cuba, also encouraged a more open society in Cuba. During Pope Benedict’s visit, Castro asked what popes do with their time and asked the pope his opinion on the changes that have taken place in the church over the last century.
Pope Francis visited Cuba and met with Castro on Sept. 20, 2015, when they discussed such things as protecting the environment and the problems of the modern world. Pope Francis is also credited for helping to broker the restoration of diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Cuba. After the restoration of full diplomatic relations between the two countries last year, Pope Francis in a statement quoted the Cuban hero and independence fighter, Jose Marti, when he said the restoration “is a sign of the victory of the culture of encounter and dialogue, ‘the system of universal growth’ over ‘the forever-dead system of groups and dynasties.’”
In a 2009 spoken autobiography, Castro said that Christianity exhibited “a group of very humane precepts” which gave the world “ethical values” and a “sense of social justice,” as he added, “If people call me Christian, not from the standpoint of religion but from the standpoint of social vision, I declare that I am a Christian.”
While we all hope that the death of Fidel Castro may lead to greater freedom and social justice in Cuba, the jury is still out. Even after the lifting of religious repression laws back in the 1990s the Castro regime was reported by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2016 report that Cuba’s “government designated 2,000 Assemblies of God churches as illegal and ordered their closure, confiscation or demolition.”
Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, where many exiles from Cuba live, summed things up well when he said, “His death provokes many emotions, both in and outside the island. Nevertheless, beyond all possible emotions, the passing of this figure should lead us to invoke the patroness of Cuba, the Virgin of Charity, asking for peace for Cuba and its people.”
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.