HAVANA (CWN) - Cuban Communist President Fidel Castro met with the country's Catholic leaders on Thursday, marking another historic milestone in church-state relations that began with last year's announcement of Pope John Paul's visit in January 1998.

      The Cuban Bishops' Conference met with Castro at the Palace of the Revolution, but government spokesmen declined to discuss the content of the meeting. Castro had told the parliament last weekend that he would be meeting with the Catholic leaders. The event is the first meeting between a high-level government official and Cuba's Catholic bishops in more than ten years, except for planning meetings with Vatican representatives for the Holy Father's visit.

      Other historic changes in the officially atheist government's policies include allowing the celebration of Christmas as a public holiday this year as well as outdoor Masses. The permanent Catholic church committee that met with Castro is headed by Cardinal Jaime Ortega, and includes the Archbishop Pedro Meurice of Santiago, Bishop Adolfo Rodriguez of Camaguey, and Bishop Emilio Aranguren of Cienfuegos.

      In a related story, the archbishop of Miami said on Thursday that he is now thinking of canceling a planned pilgrimage to Cuba next month that would have coincided with a papal visit to the country.

      Archbishop John Favalora made the decision to reconsider after meeting with a group of Cuban exiles who told him that it was morally wrong and offensive for him to plan such a trip. The Archdiocese of Miami is organizing a pilgrimage for US Catholics to travel to Communist Cuba for the papal visit on a chartered cruise ship next month. "The world must witness the pain and division created by an intransigent regime, not a fleeting moment of unity and togetherness portrayed by the cruise," the group of prominent Cuban-Americans said in a letter to Archbishop Favalora published in Thursday's Miami Herald.

      More than 400 people have signed up for the pilgrimage but several hundred spaces are still available. Organizers say sales have been slow because of exile opposition to the trip and uncertainty over whether the Cuban government will issue visas to the pilgrims or allow the ship to dock. The controversy has been complicated by the 35-year-old US embargo of Cuba, along with recently strengthened restrictions, that the exile group said should be honored by America's bishops.

      "The American Church, especially in south Florida, should decry the atrocities committed by the oppressive and intolerant Cuban regime," the group said. They added, however, that they see Pope John Paul's visit to their homeland as a sign of hope for change in Cuba.

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December 22, 1997 volume 8, no. 57          DAILY CATHOLIC