HAVANA (Reuters) - Father Miguel Angelo Jimenez’ congregation is small and mostly elderly and his church, Our Lady of Carmen in central Havana, needs repairs to a leaking roof for which there is no money.
As he sits behind a worn desk that looks like it dates back to the church’s opening in 1926, he is under no illusions about the state of the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba.
“It was in decline (before Cuba’s 1959 revolution) and it continues to decline in many things. The Church really needs to renew itself,” he said.
That, in essence, is why Pope Benedict will visit the communist island on March 26-28 after a three-day stop in Mexico.
The once-powerful Catholic Church in Cuba is hoping the German pontiff will awaken what Cardinal Jaime Ortega called last week a “a sleeping faith” and also help build on its budding relationship with the Cuban government.
Badly weakened in the years after the revolution, the Church wants to regain some of its lost glory, both in terms of bringing more people into the fold and expanding its role in shaping Cuban society.
In the past two years, it has served as an interlocutor with the government, with Ortega brokering a deal to free political prisoners, convincing President Raul Castro to let a women’s dissident group, the ‘Ladies in White’ continue their weekly protest marches, and creating more space for the Church to expand its social programs and educational courses.
The rapprochement is in part a case of mutual need, experts say.
The Church wants to be a bigger player, and Castro needs allies as he undertakes economic reforms that include the slashing of one million workers from government payrolls.
A partnership with the Church, which is Cuba’s largest and most socially influential institution outside of the government, “encourages stability and gives the state a certain degree of credibility,” said Geoff Thale at the Washington Office on Latin America, an independent organization that advocates for human rights.
Castro has said his goal is to strengthen the communist system for a future without its aging founders.
He also has shown more tolerance towards religion than did his elder brother, Fidel Castro, who ruled Cuba for 49 years before he fell ill and Raul succeeded him in February 2008.
“The party should be convinced that beyond the material requirements and even cultural ones, there exists in our people a diversity of concepts and ideas about their own spiritual necessities,” Raul Castro told a Communist Party congress last year.
The 1959 revolution brought years of conflict in which many in the Church sided with opponents of Fidel Castro and he in turn expelled hundreds of priests and nuns, seized Church property, refused it access to mass media and forbade religious believers in the Communist Party.
Ortega, now 75, was detained in a work camp for several months in 1966.
In 1962, Pope John XXIII excommunicated Fidel Castro, who later made religious antipathy official by declaring Cuba atheist in a constitution adopted in 1976. Christmas as a national holiday was abolished.
Membership in the Catholic Church and other religions plummeted with the exodus of people leaving Cuba after the revolution, and many of those who stayed quit practicing their faith openly because of harassment in the increasingly anti-religious atmosphere.
Church officials say about 60 percent of Cuba’s 11.2 million people have been baptized in the faith, but only about five percent of those regularly go to mass.
The story of the Church’s once-dominant role in Cuba and its precipitous decline is told by the presence of numerous churches in every nook and cranny of the island, and the fact that many of them now stand closed and empty.
With its baroque altar, intricately tiled pillars and a towering statue of its namesake atop its dome, Our Lady of Carmen church symbolized the Church’s soaring status in Cuba when it opened in 1926.
But at a recent Sunday mass, it was more a symbol of the Church’s modern-day problems, with half the wooden pews empty and mostly elderly people in attendance.
“I still love the church, but things have been difficult for a long time,” said 80-year-old retiree Esther, who preferred not to give her full name as she waited for her family to take her home from mass.
Church-state relations began a slow thaw in the mid-1980s when Fidel Castro warmed to the leftist “liberation theology” movement inside the Church in Latin America and Catholic leaders issued a willingness for dialogue, saying that socialism was not all bad.
In the early 1990s, coinciding with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s top ally and benefactor for 30 years, Fidel Castro replaced the word “atheist” with “secular” in the constitution, eliminated a ban on religious believers in the Communist party and allowed Caritas, the Church’s social services branch, into Cuba.
In 1994, Ortega was named cardinal, and in 1996 Fidel Castro went to Rome to invite Pope John Paul II to Cuba. Just before the pope’s arrival in January 1998, Castro reinstated the Christmas holiday.
“May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba,” Pope John Paul II said in a well-remembered and still unfulfilled line.
The Church believes another turning point may have come last year when the government allowed it to take the image of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint, around the country in a pilgrimage to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the doll-like icon by three fishermen.
In a nationally televised address last week, Ortega said a million people turned out to see the icon in a massive display of faith.
The cardinal said the showing so impressed Pope Benedict, 84, that he decided to come to Cuba, despite his advanced age and frail health, to reawaken that latent faith.
“There was great interest in this pilgrimage because the pope is committed to reviving the faith in countries that were Christianize before, but need a new evangelization,” Ortega said.
The pope’s visit will include a stop in El Cobre, the mountainside town in eastern Cuba where the icon is enshrined.
Regaining the Church’s past glory in Cuba will take work.
Afro-Cuban religions such as Santeria, a legacy of slavery on the island, are widespread and Protestant churches are estimated to have a combined membership of as many as 800,000 people.
Before the revolution, Protestant religions such as Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian had a strong presence in Cuba due to American influence on the island and they are said to be growing today, including the evangelical and Pentecostal churches.
Lazaro Alvarez, pastor of the University Methodist Church in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, said outreach programs have fueled strong growth the past four years and he now has 2,216 members.
In contrast to lightly attended Catholic masses, “we fill the chapel with 1,300 people every Sunday and have an overflow room where those who don’t fit inside can watch the service on television monitors,” he said.
Still, none of the other religions are as institutionally powerful as the Catholic Church nor wield its political clout. Within limits, it has become a forceful voice for economic and political change, particularly through its publications.
But critics say it has not used its power as much as it could or should have to push for more rapid and deep change.
“We’re seeing a Church that is kowtowing to a regime for no reason at all. What do the people of Cuba have to show for this? Nothing at all,” said Daniel Alvarez, a religious studies expert at Florida International University in Miami.
Alvarez was particularly critical of an incident last week when 13 dissidents occupied a Catholic church in Havana for two days before the Church called police in to remove them.
“This is an institution that has taken on emperors and kings. I don’t understand why they’re trying to accommodate the regime,” he said.
Thale said the Church’s weakened state and other factors have forced it to shy away from direct confrontation with the Cuban government in favor of a more gradual approach.
“My sense of things is the Church decided that the best tactic was to push for space and change within that,” he said. “You can disagree with the path the Church took, but I think there’s a sound argument that it’s the right path,” he said.
Additional reporting by David Adams in Miami; Editing by Kieran Murray