Crossroads of the Americas: Notre Dame goes to Cuba in wake of papal visit

Havana, Cuba—Notre Dame student Armani Porter said a chance encounter with a native Cuban at a salsa dancing club opened his mind to the unique history of this island in confronting questions of race and freedom. 

As an African American with Cuban ancestry, Porter was intrigued to hear that racial divisions are less sharp in this nation rebuilt on an ideology of equality. His acquaintance did acknowledge limits on Internet access, speech and travel, but claimed that Cubans have “everything that matters.” These statements pushed back against typical preconceptions of the communist country with which President Obama has recently re-opened diplomatic relations after more than 50 years of a U.S. policy of isolation.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been able to learn about my history, to go to a place and say ‘This is where I’m from,’” said Porter, a fluent Spanish speaker studying theology and neuroscience.

“It’s better than a textbook – more authentic and genuine. Speaking to people is filling in the blanks of the text.”

This kind of encounter leading to unity between different people is a perfect example of one of the key concepts of Pope Francis’ message during his 2015 visits to Latin America and the Unites States. The first pope from the western hemisphere urged the faithful to embrace a “culture of encounter” that treats the other, especially the poor, refugees or immigrants, as children of God and manifestations of Christ.

Porter came to Cuba in mid-October with a theology class taught by Cuban expert Rev. Robert Pelton, C.S.C., and Peter Casarella, director of Latin American/North American Church Concerns at Notre Dame. Casarella joined the University’s Institute for Latino Studies to host the first intercontinental conference examining the significance of Pope Francis’ visits to the Americas.

Upon arrival in Cuba, Pope Francis said the island is “a key between north and south, east and west” whose “natural vocation is to be a point of encounter for all peoples to join in friendship.”

Pope Francis’ statement captured the goals for the three-day colloquium in Havana that included historian and papal biographer Austin Ivereigh from England, Jesuit theologian Rev. Allan Figueroa Deck of Loyola Marymount University, and other prominent theologians from the U.S., Cuba, Brazil and Bolivia. The 16 students in Casarella’s class also participated.

The meeting at the Casa Sacerdotal (Priests’ House) of the Archdiocese of Havana is the first of three conferences exploring Pope Francis’ “Teología del Pueblo” (Theology of the People), which shaped his pastoral ministry as a priest and bishop in Argentina and continues in his pontificate and teaching today. The second meeting is being planned for next year at Notre Dame, culminating the following year at Notre Dame’s Global Gateway in Rome.

The project began in Cuba, Casarella said, in part because the last three popes have come to the island nation and because Pope Francis played a mediator role in normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

“Cuba is a country that is disputed territory, that is opening itself up to some new reforms,” Casarella said. “But Cuba most of all is at the heart of Latin America.”

Havana is an ancient city and a modernizing one. The older parts of the city date back centuries to when this capital of the Spanish empire was a thriving metropolis while the United States was a backwoods outpost. The 1950’s era Buicks and Pontiacs still distinctly mark the U.S. embargo, but they now mix with newer European and Asian imports. The city squares and columned arcades recall those in Spain or Italy, but young people can now be found huddled in groups around Wi-Fi hot spots. Just a 45-minute flight from Miami and boosted by the recent lifting of limits on bringing back rum and cigars, Havana is already starting to explode as a center of tourism again.

Iconic spots like El Floridita, where famous people from Miami mafia to Ernest Hemingway once sipped drinks before the revolution, are flourishing, full of foreigners spending money as a Cuban band played traditional music. Narrow streets with overhanging balconies feature stores with books on Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, tourist trinkets, tee-shirts, and inexpensive Cuban rum. A short walk farther afield reveals government stores stocked with choices you can count on your fingers and an abundance of stray dogs and cats. Cab drivers say that they had to quit economics or engineering in order to feed their families with tourist income.

The conference aimed to take in these contradictions and explore them in the theological context of Pope Francis’ teachings. “The purpose of the conference was to build a bridge between those of us who are interested in Latino communities in the United States and those interested in Latin America,” said Luis Fraga, co-director of the Institute for Latino Studies. “Pope Francis’ visits to the Americas was that perfect bridge, the opportunity to look at what impact he had on these communities.”

The first talk from Ivereigh, Francis’ biographer, occurred in the Centro Cultural Padre Félix Varela, named after a priest exiled by the Spanish crown for his revolutionary views who became a significant pastor to the Irish immigrants in New York City. The beauty of the building’s inner courtyard and baroque architecture set the stage for an exploration of Argentine influences on Jorge Mario Bergoglio and how they translate into his pastoral message as pope.

Later sessions at Casa Sacerdotal focused on Francis’ concern for the poor and marginalized, on other church movements with similar aims, on the enrichment brought by immigration and integration in the Americas. William Portier, a historian from the University of Dayton, said, “If John Paul II was a philosopher pope and Benedict XVI a theologian pope, Francis is a poet pope” who sings of a “pastoral revolution.”

Timothy Matovina, the Institute’s other co-director, said the conference theologians provided an intellectual framework for understanding Francis’ pastoral vision. He emphasized the idea of listening to what colleagues in Cuba and throughout the world had to say about the impact of the papal visits.

Casarella said Notre Dame’s foundation in the Catholic Church and longstanding interest in Latin America made it a natural fit to sponsor this examination of the theology of Pope Francis.

“It’s really simple,” he said. “Notre Dame is interested in supporting the collaboration between the Church in North America and the Church in Latin America, and this is a great way to jump start that effort.”

“Notre Dame is interested in supporting the collaboration between the Church in North America and the Church in Latin America, and this is a great way to jump start that effort.”

The students said they appreciated the insights from the conference as well as the opportunities to experience Cuban culture, from a visit to the campus of their counterparts at the University of Havana to walking the busy street down to the ocean. The conference-goers also participated in a Mass and 80th birthday celebration for Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino, who as former Archbishop of Havana presided over three papal visits to Cuba. Dozens of Cuban priests took part in the ceremony and lunch, culminating in a surprise appearance by a Cuban mariachi band.

Kathleen Kollman, a theology and peace studies major, said she has wanted to go to Cuba since her memorable encounters two years ago working with Cuban refugees at a shelter in Texas.

“I knew nothing of Cuba before living with these women,” she said. “I got this picture of Cuba as a place of contradictions because you could tell they loved their homeland so much and ached to come back, but in some ways they were so glad to be away from it and excited to start their new lives. I think that gave me a nuanced view of Cuba and a good lens through which to see all of this.”

Produced by the Office of Public Affairs and Communications.

  • Author: Brendan O’Shaughnessy

  • Photography/Videography: Matt Cashore



Originally published by Evelyn Gonzalez at on October 24, 2016.