IT IS TEMPTING TO THINK OF John Paul II's impending visit to Cuba as a reprise of his epic journey to Poland in 1979. But we should resist the temptation. The Catholic church in Cuba is not thinking that way, and neither is the pope.

For John Paul, this visit, like the 80 others he has undertaken over the past two decades, is first and foremost a pilgrimage. His goal, quite simply, is to strengthen the church in Cuba for whatever future it faces. The pope's impact on world affairs has been such that his every move on the international stage is interpreted as some kind of political gambit. But he is the first to insist that whatever influence he has enjoyed has been the result of his preaching of the Gospel and his Gospel-based defense of human rights. It is perhaps a curiosity that this most politically potent of popes conceives his ministry in explicitly evangelical terms; but that is how he has thought and acted throughout his papacy, and Cuba will be no different.

Neither does the Cuban church of 1998 imagine itself the Polish church of 1979. The church is in a minority position in Cuba, banned from presenting itself publicly to Cuban society for more than 30 years. (One recent report had it that a Cuban gentleman was very excited that the pope was coming: "But who is the pope?" he asked.) Catholicism is not the historic custodian of national identity in Cuba, a role fulfilled by the church in Poland for centuries.

So what do the Vatican and the Cuban church want from this visit? First, the church would like the assistance of Latin American priests as it expands its activities. The Cuban government has, until quite recently, regularly denied (or terminally stalled) requests for visas from Latin American clergy. In pre-visit negotiations with the government, the Vatican raised the issue of visas, arguing that the church needed priests to help prepare for the pope's visit. Soon, the government changed its policy and issued a significant number of visas. The church would like to see the visa process routinized, so that it has clergy sufficient to maintain a vigorous public ministry.

Then there is the question of the church as a charitable institution. Recent Cuban policy has allowed the church to receive humanitarian assistance from abroad (primarily foodstuffs and medicines), but not to distribute it--a role the government has reserved for itself. A change in this policy, allowing the church to distribute independently the aid it receives, would be a major improvement.

Another issue is media access. Ever since the Communists seized power, the church has been denied access to the mass media, a major factor in widespread public ignorance of the church and its leading personalities. (Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, walks through the streets of his city unrecognized by many.) Moreover, the church has not been allowed to publish independently; religious materials--Bibles, catechisms, missals, hymnals--must be imported (under government control, of course). But there has been some easing of these restrictions in advance of the pope's visit, and the church hopes that the trend will continue, and even expand, after the pope leaves.

And last, there is the persistent matter of political prisoners. Church sources indicate that some 900 remain in jail. The church wants them released, and it wants the government to permit them and their families to emigrate, if they so choose.

The immediate run-up to the papal visit has seen the kind of scuffling between the Vatican and a repressive regime that planners of John Paul's travels have come to expect. The pope will make four major public appearances in Cuba, at strategic locations throughout the island. (The agreement to four venues was itself a concession from the government, which originally proposed confining the pope to Havana.)

But will the people of those locales be given time off from work to attend the pope's public masses? The matter remained under discussion a few months ago, but now it appears that time off will be granted (to mark the visit of a foreign head of state, as the government sees it, not a religious holiday).

There has also been disagreement about how Cuban television will treat the papal visit, and Vatican officials hope that this issue, too, will be resolved satisfactorily, if at the very last minute. In addition, the Vatican has pointed out to the relevant authorities that any attempt to replicate the Sandinista manipulation of the pope's 1983 mass in Managua--at which the regime stacked the crowd directly in front of the altar with its most vociferous supporters, while keeping the Catholic faithful on the margins--would make the Cuban government look bad (an argument that Daniel Ortega might ruefully concede).

About social and economic matters, John Paul will undoubtedly have something to say, but those hoping that he will thunder against capitalist exploitation and the marginalization of the Latin American "periphery" by the North American "core" will likely be frustrated. The pope spent too many years living under a Communist dictatorship to buy the notion that Cuba's economic crisis is primarily the result of the U.S. embargo. That the pope believes the embargo should be reconsidered is no secret. But he also understands that Cuban poverty is the result of yet another failed Communist experiment.

The tempting analogy to Poland, 1979, works in one respect: There, the sheer experience of being part of a self-organized, self-disciplined, non- governmental mass meeting had a marked impact on the psychology of a people who had been told for 40 years that they were incapable of running their own affairs. Something like that--the beginnings of a revival of civil society - - could happen in Cuba.

Something else could happen as well--to Fidel Castro. John Paul II is, above all, a pastor and a fisher of souls. If it is diffcult to predict the short-term political effects of the pope's visit, it is even more difficult to calculate the impact that John Paul himself will have on the 70-year-old comandante who grew up in Catholic schools. But almost 20 years' experience should have taught us that this pope, who really does believe that God is in charge of history and who acts according to that bedrock conviction, is a man who confounds the conventional wisdom regularly. Cuba will not be Poland redux. But something dramatic may be in store, sooner or later.

George Weigel, a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is at work on a biography of John Paul II.

Photo courtesy U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Next Page