As we sit here at the keyboard munching on a fresh ham sandwich on delicious potato bread, it gives us pause to be thankful for our daily bread in more ways than one. This gratitude also prompts us to reminisce about the fact that Cuban people are more blessed than they have been in decades. It will be one year this week since Pope John Paul II scored a historic coup by breaking through the tough, iron-clad heart of Fidel Castro in convincing the communist dictator to open Cuba to the Light of Christ and allow the people to worship and practice their faith, a faith that these persecuted people kept alive from generation to generation through the stifling regimes of first Batista and then Castro. The fruits of the Holy Father's efforts have manifested themselves a hundred-fold as Cuba has softened to the loving pastoral touch of this extraordinary Vicar of Christ. The echo of what the Pope started has reverberated around the world moving many to be more accepting to easing embargoes and restrictions on Cuba. It was this same Pope who, we like to say - singlehandedly (with all the help in the world from above) brought down the iron curtain early in this decade. Now he is peeling away the withered palm fronds of the rusty curtain that has imprisoned Cuba for over three decades. No Pope in the long, illustrious history of Sovereign Pontiffs has ever focused so much attention on the New World. He has made this obvious by his many visits to the Americas - yes, the Americas, for it is this Polish wise man who insists that the Americas - North and South America - are one.
It is appropriate therefore, that on the week of Prayer for Christian unity the Holy Father wings his way once more to the west. The occasion is the official closing of the Bishops' Synod of the Americas, held late last year at the Vatican. He was invited to close the proceedings with his Apostolic Letter in Mexico City at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe this week. He enthusiastically accepted and why not?! It was on the site of Tepeyac Hill that the Blessed Mother of God, the chief proponent of Christian Unity, appeared to Blessed Juan Diego setting in motion the end of human sacrifice by the Aztecs and inaugurating the conversion of millions of souls to the true faith. It was the seeds of this apparition that has harvested the greatest Catholic population in the world. Brazil remains today the largest Catholic nation with 135,840,000 Catholics out of a total population of 157,870,000. That's 86% of the total. Coming in second is Mexico with 92.4% of the citizens claiming Catholicism as their religion. Leapfrogging two places in the most recent findings published in this year's Catholic Almanac published by Our Sunday Visitor is the United States. There was an increase of 355,855 Catholics since the last census. Even though the total US Catholic population of over sixty-one million comprises only 22.7%, in this land of a potpourri of religions, Catholics are the most plentiful of any faith easily outdistancing the next denomination (Baptists) by over forty-five and a half million! Two of the top three states, California and Texas, boast a strong Hispanic population that can be traced back to Guadalupe.
His holiness has a method to his madness despite the secular criticism that he is growing senile at age 77. Consider that the Americas as a whole comprise 50% of the world's total Catholic population and we can see why he focuses so much pastoral attention on the New World. It was twenty years ago next week that John Paul II opened the Third General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate at the Shrine, his first visit to Mexico. He had the foresight then to reinforce Pope Pius XII's declaration that Our Lady of Guadalupe was not just the patroness of Latin America as Pope Saint Pius X had designated, but that she was patroness of all the Americas. Our Lady herself has reaffirmed this numerous times in her messages to visionaries and messengers. She has also confirmed that her mission remains the same - to stop human sacrifice. In the sixteenth century it was a pagan ritual performed by the Aztecs in which they would sacrifice full grown humans, most often virgins, on the altar of fire to the Aztec god Quetzelcoatl. At the end of the twentieth century it is the ritual of abortion that is an even more gruesome crime. Sadly, this form of human sacrifice has dulled the collective conscience of the masses who have lost the sense of human dignity with the terrible sin of slaughtering the innocent unborn fetuses. This has been the most divisive issue of our times and only John Paul II has been able to label it what it truly is: the great struggle of the Sanctity of Life vs. the culture of death.
And so he returns to rally this fifty-percent block of Catholics to realize the error of their ways and embrace the Culture of LIfe. He is a true believer in establishing cultural balance through the economy and way of life of the peoples so that countries will not be offered up as the victims of desperation on the altar of exploitation by others. That is why he has been calling on advanced nations to forgive the debts of third-world impoverished lands, asking all to live the Lord's Prayer - "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.".
Thus, on the brink of the third millennium, despite the preoccupation by so many with things of this finite, materialistic world, John Paul II continues to tweak the conscience of the world, balancing everything with a sincere, practical concern for the whole person both body and soul. It brings to mind another truth, that the dignity of man lies in not what others can do for him, but in what he can do for himself and others by learning to be independent of others and totally dependent on God. He realizes you cannot just tell people what to do; you must teach them how to care for themselves and that is what he continues to convey to leaders of every nation melding the political, economic, sociological and ecclesiastical components and how all can improve the culture of life in their own country as well as the world through adherence to God's Laws and the laws of nature. The Pope has always transcended the political scene to reach deep into the soul of the populace. He understands the need for nourishment both for the body and the soul and he offers both through practical applications and through Jesus Christ present in the Holy Eucharist and in the Word. The Holy Father realizes and continues to impart to all the time-honored axiom that Saint Augustine so eloquently offered - "My soul is restless until it rests in Thee." Wherever he goes, the Holy Father brings home that point as well as the words of the Our Father "Give us this day our daily bread" for Our Lord and His Vicar on earth realize the inalienable fact that it's very difficult to achieve true peace of heart without a piece of bread!