Pope Francis visits the US, Cuba

September 2, 2015
Written By:
Nardy Baeza Bickel


This story is part one in a three-part series on the pope’s upcoming visit to the U.S. and Cuba.

Pope Francis will visit Cuba and the U.S. Sept. 22-27—a trip that will highlight warming ties between the two countries. How is Francis’ global role emerging? What part did the pope play in the thawing of U.S.-Cuba relations? What effect will the papal visit have on the U.S. immigration debate, which has become a key issue in the presidential campaign?

These issues and others were discussed in a Michigan News interview with Daniel Ramirez, an assistant professor of history and American culture at the University of Michigan. Ramirez has written extensively about religious history. His upcoming book, “Migrating Faith: Pentecostalism in the United States and Mexico in the Twentieth Century,” explores the intersections of migratory, religious and musical cultural experience.

Q: What’s been the main message from the popes who have visited Cuba in the last 17 years?

Ramirez: Each papal visit to Cuba should be taken on its own grounds. For example, John Paul II in 1998 went to Cuba as a church leader very familiar with the communism of Eastern Europe. John Paul II went to create greater space for Cuban believers. Benedict’s trip in 2012 was part of a trip he made to Mexico to one of the most iconic places for conservative Catholicism and from there he went to Cuba. It would appear that it was part of an ideological agenda—kind of making sure the final nails in the coffin of atheism and communism were put in.

Q: What will Francis’ visit be about?

Ramirez: Francis comes as a mediator. It is not by chance that he will go to Washington, D.C., directly from Havana. In this trip, there’s all the symbolism of the role the pope played as a discreet and quiet mediator between both countries.

Q: What exactly was that role?

Ramirez: Pope Francis was the key variable in the rapprochement between the two countries. It would have taken more than Canada’s good auspices, Mexico’s perennial advocacy for Cuba with the U.S. or the Swiss, who looked after U.S. interests in Havana all this time. It took someone of global stature like Francis to pull this off, very discreetly. And we’re still trying to piece together all the background conversations that went on when folks were coming to the Vatican or meeting secretly in Ottawa and other places. I think we see Francis emerging as a global mediator in ways that Benedict wasn’t or even John Paul II wasn’t, which is a unique role that he’s able to play.

Q: Will this visit help re-energize the Catholic Church in the US?

Ramirez: It’s no secret that the Catholic Church’s numbers have been kept constant or growing solely because of immigration and high fertility of Latino populations. A Latin American pope will add to that feeling that this is the future of the church: that the future of the church is multicultural. There’s an aspect to this change that I think is very consistent with Francis’ message about a church impoverishing itself for the poor. The people who are filling the pews that were formerly filled by the Irish or Italian or Czech Americans are not going to have the same power and clout that the prior Catholic groups did.

So for example a cardinal who wants to leverage influence in the public square can no longer call out a Kennedy or a powerful or prominent figure like that. So if we’re talking then about a flock that has a high undocumented population and that is disempowered because of its social or socioeconomic status, I think the U.S. Catholic Church is going to have to come to terms with what Pope Francis has been talking about: impoverishing itself for the sake of the poor. And that is a new situation for the church to be in and, according to Francis, a healthy one.

Q: How will this play out on the ground?

Ramirez: From what I’ve seen from Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, they’re trying to squeeze every possible political advantage out of this visit to counter the xenophobic discourse of say Donald Trump and others. I think they’re going to look at this Latin American pope as a champion of Latin American rights in the nation, especially when, according to Gomez, he’s going to remind us that one of the founders of the American republic is after all an Hispanic Catholic, Father Junipero Serra.

Q: What has surprised you the most about this visit?

Ramirez: We’ll have the pope as a prophet. We have him as pastor. We have him as mediator and healer but I’m struck by the absence of any other reach to non-Catholic Christian groups. In Italy, he’s made significant gestures toward Protestants and for some reason he’s not doing that in the U.S. I find that a bit puzzling.

Contact Daniel Ramirez: 209-406-8684, dramire@umich.edu. Bio: myumi.ch/L4p0P