“What pleasure should I find in the death of a sinner, the Lord God says, when he might have turned back from his evil ways, and found life instead?”
—Ezechiel 18:23, Knox Translation
After the long-awaited death of Fidel Castro, many articles and obituaries noted that he had had the privilege of meeting three popes: John Paul II in 1998, Benedict XVI in 2012, and Francis in 2015. Also of note is the way some world leaders—particularly Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—have paid homage to the late Cuban dictator.
Trudeau called Castro “a larger than life leader who served his people,” noting that, as a “legendary revolutionary and orator, Mr. Castro made significant improvements to the education and health care of his island nation.” These comments earned Trudeau widespread derision on social media, under the hashtag #trudeaueulogies. One example, a comment on the passing of Bin Laden: “Osama Bin Laden was certainly a controversial figure, but his contribution to airport security is unparalleled.”
On this side of the St. Lawrence Seaway, President Obama’s tepid response stated, in part: “We know that this moment fills Cubans—in Cuba and in the United States—with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families, and of the Cuban nation.”
Surprisingly, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi took a much stronger stand:
After decades under Fidel’s doctrine of oppression and antagonism, there is hope that a new path for Cuba is opening. … Generations of Cuban political prisoners, democracy activists and families suffered under Fidel Castro’s rule. In their name, we will continue to press the Cuban regime to embrace the political, social, and economic dreams of the Cuban people.
It is difficult for this writer to admit, but our pope could have learned something from Nancy Pelosi. Francis, who can be so loquacious at times, had little to say on this occasion. Here is his statement, in a telegram to Cuba’s current president, Raul Castro:
On receiving the sad news of the death of your dear brother, His Excellency Mister Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz, … I express my sentiments of sorrow to Your Excellency and other family members of the deceased dignitary, as well as to the people of this beloved nation. At the same time, I offer prayers to the Lord for his rest and I entrust the whole Cuban people to the maternal intercession of our Lady of the Charity of El Cobre, patroness of that country.
The perceived need to speak diplomatically around uncomfortable subjects—Castro’s atheism, and his crimes—no doubt precluded the carrying-out of two spiritual acts of mercy: instructing the ignorant and admonishing the sinner.
John Paul and Benedict had tried to perform such acts of mercy. Here is Benedict in Havana on March 28, 2012, speaking about religious freedom:
The right to freedom of religion, both in its private and in its public dimension, manifests the unity of the human person, who is at once a citizen and a believer. It also legitimizes the fact that believers have a contribution to make to the building up of society. Strengthening religious freedom consolidates social bonds, nourishes the hope of a better world, creates favorable conditions for peace and harmonious development, while at the same time establishing solid foundations for securing the rights of future generations.
And here is John Paul at the airport on January 25, 1998, addressing the Cuban people with words that ring even more true today, with renewed hope of a free Cuba:
Dear people of Cuba, as I leave this cherished land, I take with me … a great confidence in the future of your homeland. Build it with vision, guided by the light of faith, with the fervor of hope and the generosity of fraternal love. These are capable of creating a climate of greater freedom and pluralism.
Perhaps now, with the death of a sinner, to paraphrase Ezekiel, the country may turn from his evil ways—and find life instead.
K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who works in corporate communications.