When Pope Francis visits the United States at the end of this month, he will have just come from Cuba, the first papal visit since the United States and Cuba mended their decades-long hostile relationship.
Msgr. David M. Gallivan, a former director of the Secretariat for Latin America for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, has been to Cuba twice.
Msgr. Gallivan said Pope Francis' visit has many implications since the island nation has historically discouraged the open practice of religion. This is not the first time a pope has visited. St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI did so during their papacies. However, they were not nearly as involved in the Cuban political situation as Pope Francis has been in recent months.
"We just established diplomatic relations with Cuba," Msgr. Gallivan said. "The pope was very much involved in the preliminary plans for that, even in consultations between him and our president."
Msgr. Gallivan said when St. John Paul II visited, he had been in agreement with the Church's stated policy that the embargo between the countries, which lasted more than 50 years, should end and some relationship should be re-established. However, nothing concrete happened until President Barack Obama approached Pope Francis to see what could be done about fixing relations.
Msgr. Gallivan traveled to Cuba when he was the director of the Secretariat for Latin America during the late 1980s. The first time, he went with the first delegation of U.S. bishops to visit the island during the leadership of then President Fidel Castro, with whom they met.
"We met with him for about eight hours, starting at about 6 p.m.," Msgr. Gallivan said. "We met with him in his office, and we had a certain mission to do, that the Cuban bishops had asked us to do. We put before him a lot of issues that the Cuban bishops weren't happy about, many of which eventually started changing, but after years and years and years. The bishops of Cuba were very happy with our visit."
During this visit, which occurred in January 1985, Msgr. Gallivan served as a translator for the U.S. bishops as they spoke with Fidel Castro. The meeting lasted until 2 a.m., and Msgr. Gallivan recalled one member of the American delegation of bishops asking Castro if he would ever consider meeting with the pope, who at the time was St. John Paul II. The former Cuban president's response was positive.
"Castro thought, he stroked his beard and he said, 'I'd be very happy to meet with him, here or in the Vatican. Those were his exact words," Msgr. Gallivan remembered. "Soon after that, there was some opening to the Church within Cuba. Churches were enabled to do some work on their buildings. They had no institutions at all, and churches hadn't been fixed, and no new ones built since 1960 or so."
Under Fidel Castro, the practice of religion was discouraged. Around the time of the American bishops' visit, the Cuban bishops had requested the freedom to publish materials related to catechesis and Church life, since the government forbade them from printing or distributing materials promoting Catholicism. The policies eventually softened, and they were allowed to distribute them after the bishops' visit.
When asked about the general climate toward religion in Cuba, Msgr. Gallivan said it was "an officially atheistic state" and a secularistic state, but it is no longer strictly called such. There is more freedom of religion now than there once was. While there, Msgr. Gallivan met Cuban Catholic families who had to travel several towns away to baptize their babies so their own community would not find out.
"Active participation in the Church would preclude you from any jobs or any education of significance," Msgr. Gallivan said. "You'd be on the margins of life and have only marginal jobs. You couldn't further your education. You would have no ability to leave the country for anything."
While there, they also spoke with Castro about the release of accused political prisoners. In four or five months' time, the American congregation discovered the government decided to release "about two dozen more" political prisoners than it had initially been planning to release. Although this visit happened 30 years ago, Msgr. Gallivan said Pope Francis' visit will also be a noteworthy occasion.
"Judging from the impact of the other popes that have gone there, they have all received wonderful welcomes," Msgr. Gallivan said. "I'm sure they experienced what I experienced when I was there: wonderful, wonderful liturgies. Francis' visit, I think, shows his openness to a new way of looking at economy and his nudging of Western leaders to be more generous and more open to the poor."
According to Msgr. Gallivan, this message of serving the poor is likely to be well received in Cuba, and even Castro himself once said he had admired some aspects of Church life in Latin America.