Today the church celebrates two early saints and martyrs, Cornelius, a pope who died in 253, and Cyprian, a bishop who was martyred in Roman Africa in 258.
Pope Francis will be visiting Cuba on September 19th, a few days from now. He’ll be visiting a persecuted church somewhat similar to the church of Cornelius and Cyprian.
At that time, the emperors Decius and Valerian were demanding absolute loyalty from their people as barbarian tribes and the Persians began invading Roman territory. As proof of their loyalty, Romans were expected to offer sacrifice in honor of the emperor. The Christians refused, and so church leaders were executed or imprisoned, wealthy, influential Christians lost their property, their positions and possibly their lives– all Christians could expect punishment for not performing the rites of sacrifice.
After 1961, when Cuba was declared a Socialist state, the church in Cuba suffered too. Cuban Catholics went into exile, lost their property, work opportunities and access to education. Some died because of their loyalty to their faith. Hundreds of Catholic schools were nationalized, churches expropriated, Christian holidays abolished.
Even though the new constitution in 1976 guaranteed freedom of worship, the church experienced restrictions. Only gradually, has there been evidence of a thaw, evidenced by the visits of Pope John Paul, Pope Benedict, and now Pope Francis.
Besides religious persecution, there’s another similarity between the church of Cornelius and Cyprian and the church of Cuba today. In the Roman persecution, many turned away from their faith and after it ended sought membership in the church they once knew. Hard liners called for them to be banned for life for their lack of loyalty. Let God judge them when they die, they said. Others, like Cornelius and Cyprian, called for welcoming them again, since God is all merciful.
It looks like there may be a similar challenge today in Cuba. That’s why we should pray for Pope Francis. He’s got a big pastoral task on his hands.
There’s a good article on the situation of the church in Cuba in Crux.