Pope Francis is credited with having a unique role in helping to reestablish diplomatic ties between Cuba and the United States of America after more than 50 years of frigid relations between the two nations.
After President Obama’s meeting with the Pope in March 2014, Pope Francis sent letters to both Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba, making an appeal “to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest including the situation of certain prisoners,” especially the three members of the “Cuban Five” spy group from American prisons and U.S. contractor Alan Gross who was being held in Cuba.
The pope helped to bridge the divide between the two countries by having the Vatican host a diplomatic meeting between the two delegations in October 2014 to facilitate a constructive dialogue on delicate matters, especially the embargo and the restoring of diplomatic relations between both nations.
In this decisive international move, Pope Francis has added his personal touch in enabling the diplomatic corps’ of the United States, Cuba and the Vatican to work through his own personal intervention. According to international sources the pope with his influence has begun the “initiation of a new phase in relations between the two nations.”
With his crucial role in the United States-Cuban breakthrough, Pope Francis has quickly become one of the world’s leading moral and diplomatic figures. His influence in this specific case is strongly tied to his status as the first Latin American pope of the Roman Catholic Church.
As Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio he visited Cuba and personally saw the terrible effects on the Cuban people of the 50-year embargo. In addition he has continued to have a strong relationship with the Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, who is obviously a strong player in this historic move. For decades Pope Francis has viewed the split between the United States and Cuba as “a split between American brothers.”
Upon hearing of this new relationship between the two nations, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a news release stating that for years they have believed that the United States should establish full diplomatic relations with Cuba in order to support change in Cuba, alleviate poverty and empower the Cuban people “in their quest for democracy, human rights and religious freedom.”
At the same time, the Cuban Episcopal Conference published a statement thanking God on the eve of Christmas for the “new horizons of hope that are opening for the people of Cuba.”
The Vatican’s involvement in Cuba really began in the 1962 when St. John XXIII intervened between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
St. John Paul II made the first official papal visit to Cuba in 1998, restoring Christmas as a public holiday in the country. He also criticized the embargo as causing hardship for the Cuban people. Pope Benedict visited Cuba in 2012.
For Pope Francis, the breakthrough demonstrates that the Vatican is an important broker in global diplomacy. His actions show a fostering of dialogue, reconciliation, trade and cooperation between the two nations.
Pope Francis has accomplished what popes are supposed to do, that is to build bridges and promote peace. In fact, the word “pontiff” comes from the Latin root words “pons” (bridge) and “facere” (to do, to make) and so the word has the literal meaning of “bridge builder.”
Pope Francis has acted like his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, who during the fifth crusade in 1219 went to Egypt to gain an audience with the Sultan Malek al Kamil. St. Francis, who was opposed to war, hoped to bring about peace by converting the Sultan to Christianity, but he did not succeed. He did, however, broker a peaceful encounter by offering the revolutionary ideas that called for Christians to live harmoniously with Muslims.
Pope Francis by his prayers, hopes, words and actions shows us the true meaning of Christmas: “Peace on Earth.”
Father Gus Puleo is pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Norristown.