By: Ailer Gonzalez Mena
I confess that since I was a little girl there has been a duality in me with respect to religion, formed, on one side, by the vision of my father — doctor, atheist and Marxist — and on the other by the influence exercised over me in the afternoons at the house of my Catholic grandmother, Borita, a place where in any corner one could find the remnants of her beliefs: images of the Sacred Heart; silver crucifixes; glittering pebbles from Cobre that seduced me; and a thick booklet with silky-smooth paper that related the events, incomprehensible at my age, that made me doubt the non-existence of that supreme being lodged in my early education.
In my childhood, when to be religious in Cuba was seen almost with revulsion, during recess at my primary school, the former Moncada Barracks, we constantly engaged in heated childish controversies about whether or not God existed. In those days, the religious were treated as if they had the plague and avoided as something contagious. I remember also hearing some whispered gossip among the adults, about so-and-so who had been kicked out of the Party because they saw him enter a church, or about some other guy who lost his career at the University for having hung an image of Jesus in his home.
With the visit of John Paul II in the late nineties, a certain melancholy returned to those afternoons with my grandmother, and I went, for the first time, to the massively attended unveiling of the Faith in Cuba. The people, cautious beforehand, overflowed; sheltered by the protective figure of John Paul II, they filled the squares, singing, praying loudly, lifting the veils from their faces; I could feel, just for a moment, the touch of Freedom.
Now, returning to my country, another Pope, with 14 years having passed since that first visit; we Cubans have accumulated more wear, less hope, less joy.
Meanwhile, the same government as in my childhood, the one which marginalized and rejected like the plague believers and practitioners, expelled them from workplaces and schools, prohibited Masses and transformed churches into empty rooms; the one which banished the magic and illusions of Christmas; which imposed, generation after generation, the idolatry of a false God. That same hypocritical government, practitioner of the one religion: terror; that immoral government, that calls, or rather orders, from its editorials and news outlets, an entire people to behave like sheep in a blind herd, and that tries to sell, one more time, before the eyes of Pope Benedict XVI and the world, a benevolent and open image, while repressing and besieging, at the exact same time, the authentic voices in Cuba that unmask it. Before such audacity, my Catholic grandmother would murmur: God helps those who help themselves.
For me, this visit of the Pope is one more drop in the great tide that is advancing and announcing, immense, a great change in the destiny of this devastated nation. Perhaps I will not attend the Mass on the 28th, given my scant devotion, but I will carry in my pockets, like on those afternoons with my grandmother, a spell to conjure the well-being of my country and my people, a little golden pebble from Cobre, a pebble of the Virgin of Charity.