By ANNE-MARIE GARCIA, Associated Press Writer Wed Feb 20, 10:12 PM ET
HAVANA - The Vatican secretary of state's trip to Cuba Wednesday to
commemorate the 10-year anniversary of Pope John Paul II's historic
visit comes at a critical moment in the future of the island country,
which has had mixed relations with the Roman Catholic Church.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who reports to the Vatican's Holy See, was to
arrive in Cuba late Wednesday, a day after Fidel Castro resigned from
his 49-year rule, citing health problems.
The timing is coincidence and the visit purely pastoral, said Cuba's
Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who along with the Cuban
government invited Bertone for the six-day trip.
"The imprint that Pope John Paul II left on Cuba is very deep," Ortega
after a Sunday Mass. "From that moment, things were different in the
relationship between the church and society and with the state.
Bertone's visit follows up on that."
Relations were mixed between the Vatican and Castro's communist
government, which never outlawed religion but expelled priests and
closed religious schools upon his takeover of Cuba in 1959.
Church-state relations eased in the early 1990s when the government
removed references to atheism in the constitution and let believers of
all faiths join the Communist Party. Relations warmed more with John
Paul's 1998 visit — the first to Cuba by a pope.
Raul Castro, who is likely to be named president by parliament Sunday,
greeted John Paul during his visit to Santiago, where he celebrated Mass
and paid homage to the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, Cuba's patron saint.
On the eve of his travel, Bertone raised the possibility in a newspaper
interview of a future trip by Pope Benedict XVI.
"Up until now it hasn't been possible. In the future we will see," he
said without elaborating.
Bertone's six-day trip marks the highest-level visit to Cuba by a
Vatican official under Pope Benedict XVI's tenure. It coincides with
Sunday's meeting of Cuba's newly elected parliament to choose new
leaders, already scheduled before the 81-year-old Castro stepped aside
After visits to central and eastern Cuban, Bertone will meet Monday and
Tuesday with top officials, including Raul Castro, who ruled
provisionally for 19 months during his brother Fidel's illness.
Bertone also is set to celebrate a Mass Sunday morning in Guantanamo to
mark John Paul's creation of a diocese 10 years ago in the southeastern
province surrounding the U.S. naval base there.
There was no mention of a meeting with Fidel, who welcomed John Paul to
Cuba and attended a massive papal Mass in Havana's Revolution Plaza.
Despite huge expectations, very little changed after the trip, during
which John Paul urged the island to "open to the world" and "the world
to open to Cuba." The Polish-born pope was associated with the fall of
communism in his homeland.