This week's convergence of Pope John Paul II and Fidel Castro in Cuba should advance the Catholic paradigm in that Marxist nation while attracting worldwide attention to the leaders' stark philosophical differences.
Most importantly, it should provide hope to Catholics and other Cuban Christians that an era of unfettered religious worship may lie ahead. But that may be some time in coming.The contrasts are marked. The Pope, of course, is spiritual leader of the world's largest Christian denomination. Castro, a self-proclaimed atheist, heads a Marxist country of 11 million people.
While Pope John Paul helped topple totalitarian governments in Poland and throughout Eastern Europe, Castro keeps tight rein on one of the world's final communist regimes. The Pope, and the principles he espouses, is a proponent of human rights and political self-determination, concepts foreign to Castro.
Both are forceful leaders and not prone to compromise. Speculation abounds whether their five-day visit will be confrontational, and whether the United States will be bounced by both for its economic embargo against Cuba and unabashed support of free-market economic reforms.
In many Latin-American nations, those reforms have resulted in widened gaps between rich and poor. The Pope has roundly denounced the dangers and damage of widespread class distinctions.
Most significant in all of this is Castro's concession to Christianity, however far that may carry. Last week, the country's Catholic cardinal spoke on television for the first time, proffering a carefully worded message respectful of the government.
Castro allowed Christmas in Cuba, granting a unique exception to appease the pontiff. Within hours of his announcement, Christmas trees sprung up throughout Havana, symbolic of the peoples' eagerness for change and for celebration of something much higher than the secular Cuban state.
These and other evidences, triggered by this week's visit, are proof that the spark of faith still flickers among the people of our Communist neighbor. Perhaps Pope John Paul's visit will serve to ignite that spark in peaceful, orderly fashion.