HOW JOHN PAUL II CHANGED CUBA
Włodzimierz Rędzioch talks with Joaquin Navarro-Valls
On 16 November 2016 he reached the age of 80. 80 years intensively experienced, full of rich events, over 20 of them – in the light of illuminators of world media. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the previous director of the Vatican Press Office, and a spokesman of John Paul II is one of the most known people connected with the pontificate of the Polish Pope. His life was full of unexpected events. He wanted to be a doctor, so he studied medicine at universities in Granada and Barcelona – he specialized in psychiatry. But he was also interested in journalism, so he started it at Navarra University in Pampeluna and later at Harvard University.
In the 50s of the last century he made a contact with Opus Dei (God’s Work) and as a numerary he became its member. In the beginning of the 70s he moved to Rome and lived there in the headquarter of the Work, where also its founder was living – Fr. Josemaria Escriva de Balaquer, a saint today.
As a Roman correspondent of Spanish media Joaquin Navarro-Valls met John Paul II personally, accompanied him in his apostolic journeys. It was an occasion also for the Pope to meet with this clever and elegant journalist when he decided to appoint a director of the Press Office of the Holy See in 1984.
After death of John Paul II, to the definite request of Benedict XVI Navarro Valls remained a director for two more years. For over 20 years Joaquin Navarro-Valls was one of the closest cooperators of John Paul II. He also played an important role in preparing the papal journey to Cuba, governed by Fidelo Castro.
I met with the previous chief of the Press Office of the Holy See on the day of the death of the dictator of Cuba, in order to bring memories of the historical journey.
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WŁODZIMIERZ RĘDZIOCH: – Why did John Paul II, a pope considered as anti-communist, want to visit the country governed by the communist regime which has even survived the collapse of the Berlin wall?
PROF. JOAQUIN-VALLS: – John Paul II wanted to visit Cuba because this country needed the Pope’s visit. – it was a purely human and spiritual need. The Cubans, isolated by the American embargo and the international society needed somebody who could explain them an unusual value of a human, especially the richness of Christian faith. Only somebody like the pope John Paul II could do it.
– You had an important role in preparing the visit. What could you say about it?
– There were a lot of unsolved problems before the visit. Some of them were purely practical and organizational, but they mainly concerned more serious issues such as the lack of: priests, which made it impossible to provide believers with pastoral care, removing the Christmas day and a lot of other things from the official calendar, in the beginning of the revolution. Therefore, the Pope sent me to Cuba 3 months before his visit. I had a long talk – for 6 hours without a break – with Fidel Castro and I must say that he was listening to me very carefully. Thanks to him a lot of problems were solved- yet before the Pope’s visit, Castro had introduced back Christmas in the calendar. And it has been so till today.
– What conditions were put forward by the regime so that the Pope’s visit could be permitted?
– In fact it did not put forward any conditions. What was to be considered was the fact whether on the occasion of the Pope’s visit it was possible to deal with some problems of the Christian Church in Cuba seriously. And, as I said, a lot of those problems had been overcome earlier.
– Weren’t you afraid that the Pope’s visit would be used as a propaganda by the regime?
– I think that this problem appeared during every papal journey. There had always been a risk that the local authorities were using the Holy Father’s visit which had a pastoral character, they would try to reduce its significance for personal aims. But in the case of John Paul II this problem was overcome during the first 5 minutes after his arrival, as the Pope’s words had always been clear unambiguous and understandable. In every country where he arrived, his message got to the public space and aroused the general attention. Do you remember the first visit to Poland in 1979? And then during the martial law?
– How was the Pope getting prepared for his journey to Cuba?
– First of all, he had been studying history and reality of Cuba. He also asked others to explain him the local problems in details. And he was also praying for Cuba a lot.
– Finally, in January 1998, John Paul II landed on Cuba governed by Lider Maximo – Fidel Castro, what feelings did you have when participating in the solemn Holy Mass on Plaza de la Revolucion?
– For John Paul II the Holy Mass had always been the central event everywhere. But he also knew how to cheer up people. I remember that his lecture was interrupted by applauses a lot, so he said at one moment: ‘Thank you for this applause, as thanks to it, I can have a little rest’. I remember that also Castro arrived at the memorable Holy Mass. When it ended, I asked him if he wanted to greet the Pope. He agreed to it at once.
– What do you particularly remember about the meetings of John Paul II with Fidel Castro, especially about the private one in which the politician’s family were participating?
– The private meeting lasted very long – certainly, there were a lot of issues to discuss. Castro was very kind. Next door, his brothers and sisters were waiting – The Pope also wanted to greet them personally. At one moment Castro said: ‘Holy Father, my sister would like to shake Pope’s hand. Is it possible?’ John Paul II smiled and said: ‘Certainly!’ And it was how the dictator’s sister shook the Pope’s hand in the presence of a bit excited Castro.
– Was the Pope glad about his journey to Cuba? How did he comment on it?
– John Paul II was glad because for him it was the time of ‘sowing’ on whole Cuba. He was praying and was glad with millions of the Cubans who had never thought that they would see the Pope on their island.
– What were particular effects of the journey of John Paul II for the life of the Church and ordinary people?
– We must consider this issue from a kind of perspective, as, first of all, it concerns the fruits which remained in human souls and they are known only to God. Anyway, surely, its whole history Cuba has never experienced anything comparable to those days. John Paul II was an effective tool of God in the life of the Cubans.
– When one is looking from the perspective of 20 years, what sign did that first journey of Pope to Cuba leave in history?
– I would like to mention only one fact: before the visit the Church in Cuba had not played a social role. In was invisible: it was not allowed to manifest faith publicly, for example, organize processions which have a great significance for Christianity in Latin America. After the Pope’s visit the situation changed – the Church entered the social life.
– Since 1984 you have been a privileged witness of the pontificate of John Paul II – you were one of the most trustworthy cooperators of the Holy Father. Doesn’t it seem to you that some groups are trying to forget this great Pope, and treat his pontificate as history only?
– It had already taken place when John Paul II was still alive – there had always been somebody who wanted to remove him from the cultural and social landscape - not only the religious one of our epoch. But nobody managed to do it! There was no way to remove this saint person, to stifle his voice. Thanks to his journeys, teaching, work, and, mainly his prayer the Holy Father made faith visible. And not only in Rome or in churches, but all over the world: at work, in families, at universities and scientific centres. And today, one can only go the Basilica of St. Peter and see the chapel full of people where his body was entombed, and in order to realize how much John Paul II is present in people’s life.