Can Pope John Paul II do for Cuba what he did for Eastern Europe?


Issue: "Palau: Renaissance Man," Jan. 24, 1998

In Eastern Europe and in Russia, the years preceding the end of communism were marked by moral and spiritual renewal. The birth of Solidarity in Poland was the first contraction in the birth of a new order. Using a little poetic license, one could claim the contractions took 10 years in Poland, 10 months in Hungary, 10 weeks in East Germany, 10 days in Czechoslovakia, and 10 hours in Romania. The pre-revolution saw a marked attention to morality, a growth in civil society, and a blossoming of spiritual intensity in the churches. Arguably, these changes enabled people to find the courage to resist, but the character to do so peacefully. Polish theologian Josef Tischner described the Solidarity movement as a "forest of awakened consciences." It is a metaphor apt for the entire resistance movement that was to grow. This moral revolution occurred not only in the better-known histories of Poland's Solidarity and Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, but also in East Germany, where the Protestant church was the spiritual sparkplug. There were parallel religious movements in Latvia, Lithuania, and Ukraine. In Russia, the turning point was arguably the celebration of the millennium of Orthodox Christianity in 1988. Mikhail Gorbachev may have recognized that in order for perestroika to work, he needed to enlist the support of the religious community, harnessing the energy of reliable workers who didn't steal or come to work drunk. The millennium was an opportunity for a gesture, much akin to Mr. Castro's invitation to Pope John Paul II. Mr. Gorbachev held a landmark meeting in April with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Pimen, and he promised to return a number of churches, reopen monasteries, and implement a new law on freedom of conscience. Mr. Gorbachev may have gotten more than he bargained for. Millions watched on television when President Reagan visited the beautifully restored Danilov Monastery and spoke of embracing religious liberty. Religious leaders from throughout the world descended on the Soviet Union, and surprised Soviet citizens found the airwaves of television and radio full of a message that had been banned as long as they could remember. Across the country church bells pealed and jubilee concerts celebrated old truths and new freedoms. On June 18, thousands of believers, most of them Baptists from throughout the Soviet Union, descended on Kiev, where Prince Vladimir had been baptized in 988. In spontaneous worship amidst overflowing crowds, many converted. Five days later, thousands assembled, shouting down police who attempted to break up the crowd. The mass marched in a column to the center of the city, coming to a halt at the statue of Lenin, where they prayed until deep into the night. Michael Bourdeaux, who was there, says the spirit was palpable, in a 20th-century recreation of the book of Acts. Something powerful had been unloosed. Likewise, welcoming the pope to Havana may catch Mr. Castro unaware of spiritual power unlocked in civic gestures. Santiago Matheu, a Cuban priest exiled to Miami two years ago, predicts: "For Cuba the next era starting in 2000 will be a renewal of spiritual life for all of Cuba." He is cautious when making comparisons to Poland. "This is a thoroughly different era, and they are thoroughly different countries." But he does acknowledge, "Every spiritual renewal has consequences in a social life." Whether Cuba can demonstrate the character to create peaceful civil order is the critical question. The day the Berlin Wall fell, East Germany had spent 40 years in the spiritual wilderness. Cuba will have done so next year. --by Barbara von der Heydt Elliott, president of the Center for Renewal in Houston, Texas, and author of Candles Behind the Wall: Heroes of the Peaceful Revolution that Shattered Communism (Eerdmans: 1993).

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