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Pope Francis will spend three days in Cuba next week before he comes to the United States. The trip could be as momentous as John Paul II's visit to Cuba 17 years ago. As the first pope from Latin America, Francis could play an even greater leadership role in that country. NPR's Tom Gjelten covered Pope John Paul's trip in 1998 and has this preview of Pope Francis's upcoming visit.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: It was clear from the moment John Paul II arrived in Cuba that his trip - the first ever to the island by a pope - had a purpose.
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JOHN PAUL II: (Foreign language spoken).
GJELTEN: "May Cuba, with all its magnificent possibilities, open itself to the world," the pope said. "And may the world open itself to Cuba." Fidel Castro was standing alongside. Not in 40 years had he shared the stage with such an important and provocative figure. Over the next few days, thousands of Cubans flocked to the pope's open-air masses. Among them, an English teacher in Camaguey, who gave his name only as Carlos, saying his political views had gotten him in trouble. He told me Cubans are often forced to attend big political rallies. But going to see John Paul II was different.
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CARLOS: Everyone came here because they wanted to come here.
GJELTEN: What does this mean for Cuba, do you think?
CARLOS: It means hope, freedom of religion, you know...
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in Spanish).
GJELTEN: But 17 years have passed since that papal visit, and it doesn't seem to have had quite the impact reformers hoped it would have. Christmas is now recognized as a religious holiday in Cuba. The government has allowed some churches to be rebuilt, and church authorities publish their own magazines. But the church has not been allowed to do much religious education, nor gotten access to radio or television. Those were goals Pope John Paul set during his visit.
FATHER JOSE CONRADO: (Speaking Spanish).
GJELTEN: "The pope did his part. He gave us directions," says Father Jose Conrado, an outspoken priest known for his willingness to stand up publicly to Cuba's leaders. Conrado thinks Cubans have been too passive. He's been especially critical of Cuba's low-key church leader, Cardinal Jaime Ortega. But Father Conrado says the government is most responsible for the slowness in winning more freedom for the Cuban church.
CONRADO: (Speaking Spanish).
GJELTEN: "The ones who apply the brakes on reform are the ones who have the power," he says. "In Cuba, that's the government." Now comes Pope Francis. In 1998, as Bishop Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, he wrote a little book titled "Dialogues Between John Paul II And Fidel Castro." In it, he endorsed dialogue with Cuba's government as a necessary step in ending its isolation. Last year, he put that belief in practice, serving as an intermediary in the negotiations between the Obama administration and the Cuban government. Now Francis is in position to take one more step.
AUSTEN IVEREIGH: I think he'll reflect the long-standing position of the Catholic Church within Cuba in order to have a future - must be able to trade and open up to the world.
GJELTEN: Austen Ivereigh is the author of a biography of Pope Francis titled "The Great Reformer." He says that as a bishop in Argentina, Bergoglio fit the mold of a Latin American nationalist, something that should give him special standing in Cuba.
IVEREIGH: So I think he will have tremendous credibility. And that, in turn, will bolster the church's role in helping to nurture and broker the transition to a pluralist democracy.
GJELTEN: How bold Francis dares to be in Cuba will be apparent if he names a replacement for Cardinal Ortega, the nonconfrontational church leader who's now 77. There are limitations to a big church role in Cuba. Catholicism is not yet as popular as church leaders there hoped it would become after the first papal visit - or the second, by Benedict XVI in 2012. Evangelical denominations do better, as does Santeria, the Afro-Caribbean religious practice. Another factor, Cuban authorities haven't been willing to cede much authority to the church as an institution outside their direct control. Eusebio Mujal-Leon is a professor at Georgetown University, a Catholic institution, where he writes about the Cuban government's relation with the Catholic Church.
EUSEBIO MUJAL-LEON: I think it has to fear, with the church as with everything else, that if it gives an inch, it may be losing much more. They have gotten used to a very vertical system of control. And so for them to cede anything is to cede too much.
GJELTEN: That was certainly the view when Fidel Castro was in charge. But his younger brother, Raul, with whom he shared a Jesuit education, may be more open. After meeting with the pope in May, Raul said he was so impressed by Francis that he might actually start praying again. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.
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