Pope Francis and the Castros? Wow. John Paul II Turns in His Grave

With the Cold War over, the icy relations between the Vatican and Communist regimes is thawed. What would John Paul II say?

HAVANA—The ripped corner of a faded banner from Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Cuba hangs from a crumbling stone wall in Old Havana. Whether someone hung it anew to herald the visit of Pope Francis this weekend or if it has truly stood the test of time is anyone’s guess, but there is little question that the two papal visits are very different, and the earlier one feels as if it’s from a very distant past.

When John Paul II visited this strange and wonderful island 17 years ago, he kissed a tray of Cuban soil held up by children at his airport ceremony and held Fidel Castro at arm’s length telling him in no uncertain terms that he was there to pray that Cuba would become a land of “freedom, mutual trust, social justice and lasting peace.” It was a kind of victory lap for the great Cold War crusader against Communism, given credit by many for vanquishing Fidel’s sponsors in the by-then quite defunct Soviet Union.

The elder Castro was just as rigid, using his time at the podium to say Cuba was fine just the way it was, thank you. “We choose a thousand deaths rather than abdicate our convictions,” he told John Paul as a way of greeting.

Nothing could be more different from the welcoming ceremony when Francis landed here on Saturday night, not least because Pope Francis shares many of the convictions that Fidel and Raul officially say they stand for: identifying with the poor, calling for greater income equality.

On Friday evening, Francie and Fidel’s younger brother, Cuban President Raul Castro, greeted each other like old friends, embracing in such a warm way one can almost imagine them sitting down over a glass of rum (and a cigar?) in the old city center like old compañeros de lucha, comrades in the struggle.

The two shared a similar rapport in Rome last spring when the Jesuit-trained Raul said that he had such respect for Francis he might even return to the church. “If the Pope continues to speak in that fashion, sooner or later I will begin to pray again and return to the Catholic Church, and I’m not joking,” he said. (Of course, the news of that promise, which reverberated around the world, was censored from Cuban state television, meaning few Cubans heard it firsthand, which suggests just how far rhetoric and practice diverge here.)

This time, Raul welcomed Francis by repeating his gratitude for the pope’s role in thawing relations with Washington. “The reestablishment of relations has been a first step in the process toward normalization of the relationship between the two countries, which will require resolving problems and correcting injustices,” he said.

Francis then asked Castro to greet his ailing brother and “convey my sentiments of particular respect and consideration" to Fidel. After delivering his Sunday angelus in Revolution Square, Francis spent about 40 minutes visiting with Fidel at the former leader's private residence in Havana for what Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told reporters in Havana was an "intimate and familial" conversation with around 10 people in attendance.

Without giving much specific detail, Lombardi said that Castro discussed "the situation of humanity today, the great problems" and Castro reminisced fondly about the last papal visit and his conversation with Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. The two then exchanged gifts. Francis gave Castro a series of books and CDS including some by Fidel's former Jesuit tutor. Castro gave the pope a signed copy of a bound interview called Fidel and Religion.

It was no secret that John Paul II’s relationship with Castro was strained, but in many ways marked the beginning of a turning point for Cuban Catholics. It was just after Castro had relaxed the rules on religion, turning Cuba from being officially atheist to becoming secular nation. Almost immediately after the visit, Castro reinstated Christmas as a national holiday.

Many in Cuba credit John Paul for initiating the thaw between the U.S. and Cuba, even though Francis is seen as the crucial bridge builder between the two estranged nations as they work to redefine their relationship after years of estrangement. "For some months now, we have witnessed an event which fills us with hope: the process of normalizing relations between two peoples following years of estrangement," the pope said. "I urge political leaders to persevere on this path and to develop all its potentialities as a proof of the high service which they are called to carry out on behalf of the peace and well-being of their peoples, of all America, and as an example of reconciliation for the entire world."

In fact, on Friday ahead of the pope’s arrival, Raul Castro and U.S. President Barak Obama spoke by phone to reiterate their intended cooperation. Obama promised that the United States will ease restrictions on banking and business between the U.S. and Cuba, although there is no tangible sign of that change just yet.

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On Sunday morning, as hundreds of Cubans filled Revolution Square for the pope’s open-air mass, with Raul Castro and his wife in white linen front and center, a handful of presumed dissidents were arrested and dragged away as they tried to hand out leaflets. Last week around 50 known dissidents who had hoped to meet the pope were also arrested and conveniently kept in custody until after the pope leaves. Old habits, it would seem, die hard.