After a recent meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican, the President of Cuba, Raúl Castro said: “I will resume praying and turn to the Church again, if the Pope continues in this vein,” adding, “I am not joking.”
Can this possibly be true? Mr Castro is 83, an age at which people often think about their eternal destiny. But he also presides over a regime which is not only officially atheist, but also one that had persecuted the Church for decades, and which carries out policies that are deeply inimical to the Church’s social teaching.
With regard to the Church’s social teaching, where even to begin? There are many ways in which Cuba is the antithesis of what a good country should be. Take the matter of the death penalty. Remember this old story from more than a decade ago? Some Cubans, desperate to get away from the country, hijacked a ferry, which sadly ran out of fuel before it made it to Florida. Three of them were executed by firing squad, after a very short judicial process. Their fate is emblematic of the way Cuba treats its people.
If Mr Castro is serious about returning to the Church, then it would be one of the most famous conversions in history, up there with Paul of Tarsus. As a lapsed Catholic all he has to do is go to confession, but what a confession that would be! It would involve repudiating the last sixty or so years of Cuban history, or more accurately, repudiating the last six decades of his own personal history, which has been intimately connected with that of the regime. Such a repudiation would effectively mean not just the end of his involvement in the Cuban regime, but the end of the regime itself. For Cuban government has as its foundations the sins of the Castro brothers and their associates, and it cannot survive without the perpetuation of those sins.
Anyone who wishes to return to the Church must renounce the sins that keep them away from the Church. To return to the Church, Castro needs to recognise and admit that the repression of the last half-century is a crime against humanity and against God.
He talks about praying: that is encouraging, for when we pray we see God face to face and He shows us a reflection of ourselves, which is often not a pretty picture. To pray is to be impelled to change. If Mr Castro starts praying, he may be impelled to change.
Though Mr Castro informs us that he is not joking, my suspicion is that he is playing games with us. Men on the brink of repentance and conversion, do not stay on that brink very long. They are impelled by the force of the Holy Spirit to cast themselves on the Divine Mercy. They do not stand on the brink and talk about it.
If Mr Castro is playing games, the motive would be political. The Pope is visiting Cuba in a few months’ time. After that the Pope will make his way to the United States. The Cuban visit will be watched carefully in America. The “will he, won’t he” conversion story may attract a fair amount of attention, and take the focus away from the repressive nature of the regime. That would be a canny political move. A conversion would signal the surrender of the regime to the forces of civility. Talk of a conversion might simply extend its life.