HAVANA —Here in the working-class parish of Jesus de Monte, even the atheists come to church.
For the free computer classes.
Once shunned, Catholics in Cuba now openly practice their religion, as the church here and the visiting pope pursue soft-power politics, gently pushing for change.
At the Jesus de Monte church, lay clergy and volunteers have launched an ambitious community-outreach program, providing the kinds of services — such as breakfast for the elderly or a free pharmacy — that were once the sole responsibility of the state.
Their evening courses in basic business administration are packed with Cuba’s fledgling entrepreneurs. More than 150 students — most of them not Catholic — are enrolled in classes that teach accounting, inventory management and marketing.
In other settings, the church is offering an MBA program in conjunction with a university from Spain, and it recently reopened its seminary to train priests.
National Catholic magazines publish articles that are remarkable for their frank assessments. A recent issue praised the economic policy changes of President Raul Castro as “positive and well intended” but stated bluntly that “they are not enough . . . to meet the economic and social problems that have accumulated under 52 years of socialism.”
Far removed from the popular images of religious repression promoted by Cuban exiles and politicians in Miami, parishioners here say they face no discrimination. Instead, it appears that Catholic institutions, especially the national magazines, have been granted a kind of freedom to publicly critique that others have been denied.
In interviews at three churches in the capital, parishioners complained — openly, and a lot — about the economy and voiced a desire to see change come to the island. But regarding the treatment of Catholics, they were content.
“We’re in a state of respect now. We are a normal part of life. It no longer matters if you are Catholic,” said Susana Sanchez, 46, who recalled that “in the first years of the revolution, my generation, the young moved away from the church, but they have been coming back. It’s a space to grow spiritually, to fill a need.”
Santiago Martinez, one of three priests serving the San Juan Bosco church nearby, said that even members of the all-powerful Communist Party attend Mass, and so do government bureaucrats, who in a previous generation would have been branded counterrevolutionaries for bowing their heads at the altar.
“The life of the Catholic is now the same as every other Cuban, except the Catholic has his faith,” Martinez said.
The priest said his parish is growing. “We do 25 baptisms a month,” he said. “The teachers for our catechism classes are busy.”
Still, the Catholic tradition in Cuba is different. The island is famous for its “nominal Catholics,” who might attend church a few times in their lives — while carefully maintaining shrines in their homes to honor Afro-Caribbean deities.
One of the parishioners at Jesus de Monte said he remembered well the 1970s and ’80s, when church attendance was not only dissuaded by the government, “but your own neighbors would turn you in.”
He recalled a relative who was denied entry to the Youth Communist League “because her mother had an image of the Sacred Heart in her living room.”
Paula Castillo, 48, who was selling plastic images of the Black Madonna at the Church of Our Lady of Regla, said, “I feel very happy being a Catholic, very content.” She joined the church after the birth of her children and said her neighbors in the working-class barrio of Regla couldn’t care less if a person is religious or not. “It’s not like the old days,” Castillo said.
Today, the church and the state appear to be working side by side. The government took the unusual step of declaring a paid holiday for Wednesday, when Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to celebrate Mass at the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana.
Communist Party offices and state-run businesses are encouraging — even pushing — their workers to attend the Mass or to line the route that the pontiff will take coming and going.
Coverage of the pope — and his homilies in full — is aired on state radio and television.
In the 14 years since Pope John Paul II came to the island and famously urged that “Cuba open itself to the world and the world open itself to Cuba,” there has been slow but accelerating change.
The ailing Fidel Castro has retired from the day-to-day management of the country’s affairs, and his younger brother, Raul, has pursued cautious changes that allow Cubans to buy and sell their own homes and cars, open small businesses, and farm fallow state lands.
En route to Cuba, Benedict told journalists aboard his airplane that the Marxist directives pursued by Cuba “no longer correspond to reality.”
The pope was welcomed Monday by Raul Castro, who grasped the pontiff’s hands and led him down a red carpet at the airport in Santiago, accompanied by marching soldiers and a military salute.
At the airport, Benedict said, “I am convinced Cuba is already looking to the future and thus is striving to renew and broaden its horizons.”
The pope said that he carried in his heart “the just aspirations and legitimate desires of all Cubans,” including “prisoners and their families, and of the poor and those in need” — a subtle reference but one not lost on Cubans. The pope was referring not to criminals in jail but to political prisoners and the dissident organization Damas en Blanco, or Ladies in White, whose members have been detained and harassed for their silent Sunday vigils of protest.
Although the Catholic Church and Benedict prefer to use words like “dialogue” and “reconciliation” to describe their mission in Cuba, the government was clear Tuesday that there are limits.
The official in charge of economic reform, Marino Murillo, was asked at a news conference packed with foreign journalists whether the dialogue might move to politics.
“We are updating our economic model, but we are not talking about political reform,” Murillo said.
In a country where the state is deeply involved in every aspect of life, the government has given the Catholic Church freedom, and even encouragement, to operate as the two institutions become unlikely allies.
“Raul Castro has given the church a role of mediator with other sectors of Cuban society,” said Enrique Lopez Oliva, a professor of religious history at the University of Havana. “The problem now is that the church is playing a role similar to an alternative political party in Cuba, which doesn’t exist in Cuba.”