Colson: First Cuba, then Congress — Francis scores big |

Colson: First Cuba, then Congress — Francis scores big

with John Colson

Everybody’s talking about the Pope’s visit to the Americas this week, and not just the talking heads on television.

The Nation, that relatively ancient (150 years old) liberal newsweekly, this week put out a series of articles headlined by the question, “What does it mean to be a radical pope?”

In case you’ve been living in a cave with no outside contact, we’re talking about Pope Francis, the man from Argentina (same home country as Ché Guevara) who got the job two years ago and has been making waves ever since.

He’s the guy who, in June, issued an encyclical that bore down on the topics of climate change, the environment, social and economic justice and other topics in ways that put world leaders everywhere to shame in its direct condemnation of international greed and hubris.

He’s the first Jesuit to be named pope, which makes him more than just a little unusual in that the Society of Jesus has been a thorn in the Vatican’s side for centuries.

All in all, he’s been an odd pontiff right out of the gate, even before he began making noises about how the wealthy of the world are trampling all over the rest of us.

As I write this, Francis is in Cuba, a nation run by a putative Marxist government that for most of its half-century of existence has been perceived as anti-religious in the extreme, owing largely to Karl Marx’s dictum that religion is the “opiate of the masses” and not to be trusted by anyone interested in social or economic justice.

But there old Francis was in recent months, “brokering the historic thaw between Cuba and the United States, sending letters to the presidents of both nations, playing host to secret meetings in the halls of the Vatican, and nudging the Cold War enemies to put a half-century of vitriol and distrust behind them,” as the New York Times described his role.

I’ve found the Cuban connection to be particularly interesting, because I visited that country in the winter of 1977, over the Christmas holiday, as part of a fact-finding mission by my college newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin.

Madison, as you may know, had an in with Fidel Castro. The city elected a student radical and hippie, Paul Soglin, to its city council in the late 1960s, and as mayor in 1973. Two years later, in 1975, one of Mayor Soglin’s most oft-remembered acts was to head down to Cuba and have a chat with Fidel about life, the universe and everything (if you Google “Paul Soglin in Cuba” you can read all about it).

It was two years after that historic visit that my newspaper, The Daily Cardinal, and a radical rag known as Takeover, sent a delegation of photographers and reporters down to Cuba to see how the revolution was doing 19 years after Castro overthrew the reigning despot, Fulgencio Batista (a Catholic, interestingly), in 1959.

What we found was a nation that was impoverished to the point of destitution by the unfair and destablizing U.S. trade embargo, dating back to 1962. In 1977, much of the population only vaguely supported Castro’s revolution, being discontented mainly because they were unable to get the latest consumer goods from the West.

At the universities, belief in the nobility of the revolution was still alive and thriving, but in the urban neighborhoods and even in small villages, people were muttering about how unfair Cuba’s military and police were, and complaining about the lack of free speech and freedom of association.

But the most startling thing to us, children of capitalism and consumerism that we were, was the lack of our kind of Christmas scene.

There was none of the commercial trappings of Christmas that we in the U.S. are used to, anywhere.

No strings of colored lights adorning lampposts and trees, no shop windows festooned with bright, shiny gifts, no gaunt Santa Claus lookalikes standing on street corners next to buckets where passersby could contribute to the Salvation Army.

None of it.

The only signs of Christmas that we came across were in the churches, of which there were very few, and there it was all about the religious aspects of the celebration of Christ’s birth, not the tawdry, over-commercialized celebration of stuff.

So, for the head of the Roman Catholic Church to be hanging out in Havana and meeting with Fidel’s little brother Raul must be quite a happening. I wish I could be there.

Since Cuba is opening up thanks largely to Francis’ intercession, he’s probably gotten a rousing welcome.

What remains to be seen is what kind of welcome he’ll get here. He will be the first pontiff to address a joint session of Congress, where some of the stiff-necked right-wingers already have said they won’t bother to show up because the pope has called for compassion for migrants and believes humans have had a hand in global warming.


I can’t wait to see how this all turns out.