The Pope has met Raul Castro and his brother Fidel Castro, this Sunday in Cuba. He could hardly avoid meeting Raul, as he is the country’s President, and wherever a Pope goes, he usually meets the head of state, which has brought both Pope Francis and his predecessors into contact with several dodgy customers in the past. But there was no reason to meet Fidel Castro. Indeed, we can only surmise that the Pope wanted to meet Fidel, and deliberately went out of his way to call on the 89 year-old at home with his immediate family.
So, why did he do it? The clue can be found, I think in the gospel of today, which is the feast of Saint Matthew.
“As Jesus was walking on he saw a man named Matthew sitting by the customs house, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.
While he was at dinner in the house it happened that a number of tax collectors and sinners came to sit at the table with Jesus and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ When he heard this he replied, ‘It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick. Go and learn the meaning of the words: What I want is mercy, not sacrifice. And indeed I did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners.’”
The Pope clearly wants to reach out to sinners. Both the Castro brothers are, like Matthew the tax collector, public sinners. They are lapsed, indeed excommunicated, Catholics, who have made long careers in not just promoting the opposite of Catholic social teaching, but in actively and deliberately persecuting the Church. This persecution, moreover, is still continuing.
Nevertheless, the Pope clearly wants to show that the Church, in the person of the its visible head no less, extends the hand of mercy to all, the Castro brothers included. Pope Francis has shown his commitment to searching out the lost sheep. In so doing he is following the command of our Blessed Lord Himself. And he may incur similar criticism.
Such criticism is not entirely fair. It is true that the opportunity of a photo op with the Pope is something even people opposed to Catholic teaching find hard to resist. But at the same time, meeting the Pope could be the beginning of conversion for people like the Castro brothers. It may be a long shot, but the pastor should always give it a try. After all, consider Matthew the tax-collector. He looked pretty irredeemable – once.