The pope as Rorschach test

Papal tours are like Rorschach tests: observers tend to see what they want to see.

Pope John Paul II addresses many of the same subjects wherever he goes -- from eternal life to family life, from human economics to holy sacraments. But the full texts of his Cuba sermons show that he remains much more interested in the Good News than the evening news.

Nevertheless, John Paul is enough of a diplomat to know that calling the U.S. trade embargo a "monstrous crime" would make headlines. This policy, he said, "strikes the people indiscriminately, making it ever more difficult for the weakest to enjoy the bare essentials." He aimed more critical words at Cuba's aging Communist regime. But the pope had much more to say about Jesus of Nazareth than Fidel Castro of Havana.

The pope spent much of his time addressing the ties that bind parents and children and the forces that threaten to tear them apart. It's wrong, he said, for human materialism -- communist or capitalist -- to crush fragile homes.

"The family, the fundamental cell of society and guarantee of its stability, nonetheless experiences the crises which are affecting society itself," he said, in his first mass. "This happens when married couples live in economic or cultural systems which, under the guise of freedom and progress, promote or even defend an anti-birth mentality. Children are presented not as what they are - a great gift of God - but rather as something to be defended against."

Meanwhile, the "idols of a consumer society" tempt many people to flee Cuba and divide their families, he said. When poverty dims hopes, "anything from outside the country seems more attractive." Also, many Cuban educational policies yank adolescents out of the home and require them to attend distant schools. The goal seems to be to insert government into the role of parents. The result is a litany of woes, said John Paul.

"These experiences place young people in situations which sadly result in the spread of promiscuous behavior, loss of ethical values, coarseness, premarital sexual relations at an early age and easy recourse to abortion," he said. "All this has a profoundly negative impact on young people, who are called to embody authentic moral values for the building of a better society."

Teachers, artists, scientists, social workers and public officials may increase their efforts to meet this crisis, said the pontiff, speaking to an audience of young Cubans. This is good, but they cannot solve the root problems because questions of morality, beauty, identity and truth cannot be answered merely in terms of money, power and information. Young people must have spiritual guidance, he said.

"The church seeks to accompany young people along this path, helping them to choose, in freedom and maturity, the direction of their own lives and offering them whatever help they need to open their hearts and souls to the transcendent," he said. "Openness to the mystery of the supernatural will lead them to discover infinite goodness, incomparable beauty, supreme truth -- in a word, the image of God, which he has traced in the heart of every human being."

By the time he reached the Placio de la Revolucion, where the flock of 200,000 chanted "libertad, libertad," John Paul had returned to the central theme of his papacy -- that true freedom is rooted in eternal truths, not human power. It's impossible for a government to mandate atheism or to separate public policy and personal moral decisions. Nations are changed one person, one soul, at a time, he said.

"If the Master's call to justice, to service and to love is accepted as good news, then the heart is expanded and a culture of love and life is born," he said, in the final mass. "This is the great change which society needs and expects, and it can only come about if there is first a conversion of each individual heart, as a condition for the necessary changes in the structures of society. The attainment of freedom in responsibility is a duty which no one can shrink."