by Sister Eva-Maria Ackerman
The Grinch may have stolen Christmas in Cuba, but St. John Paul II is credited for bringing the beloved feast back to the island.
After the famed Communist Revolution in 1959, Fidel Castro methodically introduced the evils of atheistic socialism into all aspects of life there in the decade that followed. Then, he banned all public religious observances, such as the Nativity of the Lord. It seemed that Christmas would no longer have a public space in Cuba.
That is, until the leader invited Pope John Paul II to visit his island 30 years later. Before arriving, the pontiff asked Castro to surprise the world and bring back Christmas to Cuba.
The Comandante hesitated, but wanting to look good in the eyes of the world, gave in, and the grace and joy of the Little Child of Bethlehem flowed back into the public square. Church doors were opened wider.
Those who had already welcomed the divine Child into their poor hearts, rejoiced and prepared for the coming of the pope to their island.
Pope John Paul II received a joyful welcome from the people of all faiths in Santa Clara, Santiago de Cuba and Havana on Jan. 21-25, 1998.
Thirteen years later in January 2011, I was able to witness firsthand the long-lasting impact of the pontiff’s time there. Seminario San Carlos y San Ambrosio, the first Catholic building in 50 years, was dedicated two months earlier in the presence of then- president Raul Castro.
We Sisters received permission from the government to begin our service at the seminary. Awaiting our arrival were more than 50 young men from all over the island, who were discerning a priestly vocation. They rang the seminary bells and took our suitcases to our living quarters. We soon became a family.
Juan Antonio, one of the first ones to greet us, was gifted in making beautiful projects with few resources. One year, he led the decoration of the seminary lobby for Christmas. He and his group took their machetes (it seems all Cubans have machetes!) and went into the wilder areas outside of the seminary grounds.
They soon dragged a tiny royal palm through the lobby entrance, painstakingly placed it in the manger scene, and adorned the area with handmade lanterns and sparkling lights.
They truly made a beautiful space for the newborn Child, whose herald and vicar had made this moment possible.
How providential that, only steps away from this very tropical crèche in a niche on the lobby floor, was the cornerstone of the new seminary, touched and blessed by St. John Paul II, during his final Mass in Havana on Jan. 25, 1998.