Pope Francis’ reception in Cuba shows faith in rude health
On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of Cubans, from gaggles of elderly nuns dressed head-to-toe in spotless white, to young men in jeans and t-shirts, crammed into the iconic confines of Havana’s Revolution Square to welcome Pope Francis to their island nation. As the charismatic spiritual leader of the world’s one billion Catholics celebrated Mass, a giant steel mural of Che Guevara, one of history’s most famous atheists and revolutionaries, kept watch from the side of a grey government building.
This small country of 11 million people, despite having been a communist, atheist state for decades, is still solidly Catholic. Nearly 60% of Cubans describe themselves as Christian (and the overwhelming majority of them Catholic). In fact, less than a quarter of the population is religiously ‘unaffiliated’. When Guevara, alongside Fidel Castro, led a successful revolution against the incompetent, corrupt administration of US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, over 80% of the country professed to be Catholic.
Religion’s hold on the popular imagination has clearly weakened somewhat since then, but nowhere near as much as might have been expected in a state which was officially atheist until 1992. As the aggressively atheistic governments of the Soviet Union, Warsaw Pact-Poland and Mao’s China found, you cannot drive religion out by decree. Through great danger and sacrifice, when it would have been easier to renounce or forget, Russians, Poles, Chinese and Cubans have – in massive numbers – retained, even strengthened, their faith. Of course, the Catholic faith of both of Francis’ most recent predecessors – German-born Benedict XVI and Polish-born John Paul II – survived the oppressive, anti-Christian attacks of Nazism and communism.
The question is, why? Why does faith outlast such horrors? Why do such huge crowds flock to see an old Argentinean man, garbed in a dress, speak in a Cuban square? Why do so many people shun the claim that religion belongs to a long-dead century? It seems curious that so many people are still emotionally, spiritually and politically attached to religion when atheist commentators and expert sociologists alike declare that secularisation is an unstoppable trend and faith a dying, irrational fad.
The simple truth is that religion is durable, defiant, persistent. Although many Christians like to perceive themselves as under siege from hostile forces in the modern era – and, to some extent, they are perhaps not entirely deluded – their ancient faith has witnessed and survived far greater challenges and persecutions than in our own age.
From the beginning of the Church, it has been criticised and attacked and persecuted. The history of Christianity is the history of martyrs. For many centuries, early Christian communities were small, highly vulnerable minorities. Looking at Iraq and Pakistan today, where anti-Christian pogroms are a growing, existential threat, it can seem as though, for some at least, not much has changed in over two thousand years.
However, in 21st century Europe, religion does appear to be waning. It is much less of a visible and vibrant force in society and politics than it once was; retreating from the mainstream to the margins over the past few decades especially.
Those Western congregations that worship together, whether in churches, synagogues or mosques, tend to be ageing fast. Young people are assumed to be perhaps the most irreligious generation ever as they abandon the faith of their parents. Yet, this story of the fatal decline of faith is one we have heard before – and have been hearing for a long time. Indeed, even to neglect religion momentarily, just think how many articles must have been written about the ‘death’ of the book, the train and many other time-worn human practices. In fact, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed ‘God is dead’ way back in 1882. The thing is, over a century later, we are still waiting for the funeral.
Religion is still alive and kicking. Around 84% of the world’s current population belongs to a religious faith. Planet Earth is home to 2.2 billion Christians, over 1.6 billion Muslims, 14 million Jews, nearly 500 million Buddhists and around one billion Hindus. Across Africa, Christianity continues to grow at an exponential rate. Throughout the Muslim world, faith remains almost as impregnable as ever with this generation as with the last.
In January this year, Pope Francis presided over a Mass in the Philippines’ capital of Manila, attended by a gargantuan crowd of six to seven million people, the largest ever turnout at a Papal event. This month, millions of Muslims from across the globe will descend on the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia to take part in the ancient hajj pilgrimage. These colossal events demonstrate the persistent power of religion to move, to motivate and to bring people together, even in the 21st century.
The modern world, as we all know, can be alienating and atomising. Thus, even in our largest, most godless mega-cities, people are drawn to religion. While some have abandoned established religions to nurture a more idiosyncratic, personal faith, many more continue to pray together with their family, friends and neighbours. For millions of people around the world, who feel sharply the anxieties and insecurities of everyday life in the 21st century, religion is what helps them to enjoy living; what gives them the hope and the drive to refuse to drown in the consumerist, hedonistic and capitalistic culture which surrounds them.
It is unsurprising that people are expressing a deep yearning for something different, something more authentic and real; a sense of identity, of collective and higher purpose. Faith provides all of these things; it provides answers to both the eternal questions of life and the more recent questions of modernity. Untold acts of charity, kindness and heroism have been motivated by its call.
Despite the ridicule of Europe’s irreligious intellectuals; however much they may believe that the light of the 21st century will inevitably banish the darkness of religion, the simple act of faith of the multitudes who lined the old streets of Havana, the capital of a Communist state, to sing and pray to their God with their Pope is testament to a simple (and, for atheists at least, inconvenient) truth: religion is not going away any time soon.