Good Afternoon
Good Afternoon
NewsNew YorkPope Francis Visit

In Cuba, hope that Pope Francis' visit rejuvenates Catholicism

Pope Francis waves from the popemobile upon his

Pope Francis waves from the popemobile upon his arrival at El Cobre, Santiago de Cuba on Sept. 21, 2015. Credit: Getty Images / YAMIL LAGE

HAVANA -- Gare Gomez was baptized in the Catholic Church and considers himself a Roman Catholic.

But the Havana construction worker also is a practitioner of Santeria, a religion based on West African beliefs and traditions, with some Roman Catholic elements added.

"Here a lot of people are both," Gomez, 36, said in Spanish as he stood outside a hotel trying to get a Wi-Fi connection. "In Havana there is more of a focus on Santeria."

Santeria is just one of the challenges the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba faces as it tries to rebuild after Pope Francis' historic visit. Some observers hope the visit will inject a powerful boost to the church and set it on a new path to becoming a major influence on the Communist-run island.

But others say that may not be so easy after decades of state repression of religion, including Catholicism, as well as the growth of Santeria and evangelical churches.

The pope "is trying to give a shot in the arm to the church," said John Allen, a longtime Vatican analyst who traveled on Francis' plane as part of the Vatican press corps during his trip to Cuba and the United States.

"He is trying to give them a boost with an eye to them being change agents in this transformation he's trying to promote," Allen said. But "I'm not sure John Paul II's visit in 1998 did [permanently make the church grow] and I'm not sure Benedict XVI's visit in 2012 did. So I think you have to have a certain healthy skepticism.

"Sixty years of state promotion of atheism have taken a toll," he added.

Others are more optimistic. Orlando Marquez, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Havana who served as a spokesman for the entire Catholic Church in Cuba during the papal visit, said he thinks Francis' presence will help the church grow.

"These visits renovate the spirit of the people," Marquez said. He also said Catholicism is deeply rooted in Cuba, going back centuries, and that its influence is underscored by the names of cities such as Sancti Spíritus, Latin for "Holy Spirit."

Still, he noted that while 60 percent of Cubans today are baptized Catholic, only 5 percent attend Mass regularly.

Some Cubans said they think the papal visit will help change that.

Yaima Gonzalez Castello, 32, who attended the pope's Mass in Holguín, said she thought the church would get a big boost from Francis. She noted that many young people were at the Mass.

The pope's visit "is something that touches the hearts of the young people," she said.

Even one Havana resident who described himself as an atheist said he thinks Francis' visit will bring more people into the pews of Catholic churches.

"After his visit to Cuba, the Cuban society and the Catholic Church will have more participation," May Antonio Perez Garcia, 45, said.

The visit may prompt the Cuban government to start letting the church run schools again, for instance, something that was eliminated during the Cuban Revolution, he said.

Many Cubans say they are Catholic and also practice Santeria, which grew out of the Cuban slave trade. Many followers of Santeria set up small shrines in their houses, light candles, recite prayers, offer food and engage in other rituals.

While Santeria has a strong presence in some parts of the country such as Havana, some Cubans think Catholicism will now overshadow it.

"Catholicism is going to grow more than Santeria," said Oswaldo Gonzalez, 67, Castello's father.

More news