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Will Raul Castro Really Return to the Church?

After his audience with the pope, Cuba’s president is sounding like he’s ready to come back to the church. But could Francis’s influence do even more for Cuba?

05.13.15 7:59 PM ET

On Sunday, Cuban President Raul Castro was granted a private audience with Pope Francis. It came on the heels of the pope’s announcement that he would visit Cuba en route to the United States in September and in the wake of the Vatican’s aid in helping open the door to U.S.-Cuba reconciliation. After the meeting, Castro said the pope could convince him to return to the Catholic Church, an eyebrow-raising statement coming from the leader following the atheist Marxist-Leninist ideology.

The Daily Beast spoke with Dr. Miguel H. Diaz, who was the United States Ambassador to the Holy See from 2009 to 2012, about Castro’s comments and what role Francis could play in Cuba. He is currently he John Courtney Murray University Chair in Public Service at Loyola University Chicago. He was born in Havana and moved to the United States with his family when he was nine-years-old.

Was Raul Castro serious or playing politics when he said Pope Francis could lead him back to the church?

The only comment I can offer you is what has already been reported, namely, that Raul Castro stated: “If the Pope keeps going the way he’s going, I’ll come back to the Catholic Church.” Also, Castro said that he would be present at all the Masses Pope Francis is to celebrate during his stay on the island. Time and future actions will speak louder than words.

How long has the Catholic Church, and in particular Pope Francis been interested in addressing issues related to Cuban culture and society?

The memory of the Cuban missile crisis is still fresh in the minds of many. Following this crisis, Pope John XXIII wrote in 1963 an important encyclical letter (Pacem in Terris) in which he addressed all men and women of good will, inviting them to become agents of world peace. Pope Francis knows all too well from his experience as a Latin American this Cuban crisis that brought the world to a standstill and the mediation of the Church in addressing the U.S.-Soviet Union’s relations. He is also personally aware of the social issues (poverty, human rights, discrimination, racism, inequality) that often lead to tensions, conflicts, and violence at local, national, and international levels.

How influential is Cuba today?

Cuba has always played an influential role in Latin America. The relationship that followed this revolution between the United States and Cuba, the U.S. embargo imposed on Cuba, and the various issues surrounding efforts to address fundamental human rights, democracy and respect for human dignity in Cuba have all shaped the geo-political landscape of the American continent. This pope understands the fundamental importance of stabilizing and normalizing U.S-Cuban diplomatic relationship for the sake of the Cuban people, the Cuban exiled community that has lived for too long separated from homeland and family, and for the sake of fostering regional and international peace.

Can you provide some concrete example of Pope Francis’ ongoing interest in U.S.-Cuban relations?

Following the historic visit of Pope John Paul II to Cuba in 1998, Pope Francis, then Archbishop of Buenos Aires published a book entitled, Dialogos entre Juan Pablo II y Fidel Castro. In this book, Pope Francis underscores the importance of dialogue and of the Church as a bridge-builder and promoter of peace, conversion, and reconciliation. The pope argues that authentic dialogue entails relationship, openness to others and their distinct angles of vision, respect for human dignity, and above all, echoing Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis argues that authentic dialogue leads to an encounter with truth. The pope points out that John Paul II went to Cuba ready to listen to the truth of the Cuban nation and ready to bridge this truth with the truths proclaimed in Catholic Social Teaching, especially the truth that all human persons have been created in God’s image and thereby carry immeasurable human dignity.

What advice should Pope Francis give to Cuba and to the United States as they undertake this new thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations?

Reflecting Catholic teaching on the social nature and dignity of all human persons, the Pope will likely challenge both Marxist-socialist constructions of society as well as neo-liberal capitalist constructions. The pope has been very clear to speak against “economies that kill” because they reduce individuals to market forces. At the same time, he has also challenged political systems that value persons only in terms of their social function.

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Will the “Pope Francis effect” prevail in the new relationship between Cuba and the United States?

Pope Francis will challenge Cuba and the United States to reflect upon what it is within their societies that contributes to what he has termed a “globalization of indifference.” While in Cuba, this challenge might translate into creating greater respect for human rights, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and democracy, in the U.S., that same challenge might translate into addressing our own unresolved issues related to discrimination, prejudice, and inequalities based on race, gender, sexual orientation, assess to education, economic disparities, and the large number of undocumented and marginalized immigrants within our country.

What does a man like Pope Francis mean to Cuban Catholics?

As the first Latin American, Pope Francis will surely capture the hearts of Cubans. Following his two predecessors (Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI) who visited Cuba, and thereby signaled Cuba’s geo-political importance in Latin America, Pope Francis will also walk with the Cuban people during this unprecedented and historic time of renewed diplomatic efforts between Cuba and the United States. His central message of mercy and compassion will strongly resonate with Cubans and Cuban-Americans who have always venerated the patroness of Cuba in the Marian devotion to our Lady of Charity. I suspect that this popular devotion, which highlights the love of God and neighbor, and especially invites Christians to understand charity as solidarity toward our marginalized neighbors, will offer the roadmap for the pope’s travel within Cuba and the United States.

What could better ties, lifting the embargo and travel restrictions mean for Cuban Catholics? Will they have more freedom to worship? And will that change them?

In his visit to Cuba Pope John Paul II invited Cuba to open itself up to the world and for the world to open itself up to Cuba. In this globalized and increasingly interdependent world, increasing direct people-to-people contact, bridging geo-political differences, and increasing communication between Cuba, the United States, and the global community of nations is the best recipe to realize greater democratization of the island, greater respect for fundamental human rights, and the long awaited reconciliation and reunification between Cubans in the island and the rest of the scattered and exiled Cuban community throughout the world.

As a Cuban-born American and as a Catholic what is your dream for Cuba?

As a Cuban-American, as the first U.S. Hispanic-American ambassador to the Holy See, and as a Catholic theologian I have been waiting for this moment all my life! I dream of the day that I will return to Cuba, accompanied by my wife and children, so that I can walk again in this Caribbean island and experience the city of Havana where I was born and left in boyhood. I dream of a more just, inclusive, and democratic Cuba where her children (living within the island or in exile)—and regardless of their race, culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, economic background, political affiliation, and physical ability—will sit together once again around a common table, share traditional Cuban rice and black beans, and work to advance the common good of what José Martí, our Cuban national leader once called Nuestra América (Our America). I am very proud to be of Cuban origin, and very proud to have been adopted by the United States and been given the privilege to serve the Church, academy and society as a citizen of this country. I look forward to the near future when my very Cuban-American hybridity will achieve greater integration and reconciliation.