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Spotlight Report

  George Weigel  

Law's Cuban 'miracle'


AS BOSTON MARKS its first Christmas since 1984 without Bernard Francis Law, a story involving the cardinal, likely unknown in Massachusetts, is worth a few moments' reflection. The story has an almost Dickensian, Christmas-like feeling to it, at least to those of us who lived through it. Telling it now might put the dramatic, wrenching events of the past 12 months into a clearer Christian focus.

It was just about five years ago, Jan. 23, 1998, to be precise, and Pope John Paul II was in the middle of his historic pastoral pilgrimage to Cuba -- a pilgrimage that Cardinal Law had helped make possible by deft diplomacy. That particular day had been dedicated to Cuba's young people, about 150,000 of whom had come to Camaguey for a calypso-accented Mass during which they chanted "Juan Pablo, amigo, we are with you!" over and over again. (If memory serves, some of the more politically bold were also chanting, to the same tune, "Juan Pablo, amigo, take Fidel back with you.")

Here were youngsters who had been told their entire lives that Catholicism was repressive, colonialist, imperialist twaddle. They didn't believe the party line, and they wanted to celebrate their faith with that incredible Caribbean vitality that even the Castro regime hasn't managed to crush. It was a deeply moving experience, and it must have caused the government severe heartburn.

About 9:30 that night, back in Havana, I was talking and drinking with some American journalistic colleagues in the corner of our hotel's bar, where we exchanged impressions and intelligence daily. The hotel was one of those five-star extravaganzas built primarily for conscience-light Canadian and European tourists who don't mind vacationing in an apartheid society far more rigidly segregated between wealthy foreigners and impoverished locals than Johannesburg ever was between blacks and whites. Clumsily disguised "bellboys" -- in reality, Cuban internal security police -- were everywhere, making sure that the proper apartheid distance was maintained.

Into this den of privilege came Cardinal Bernard Law, with a troupe of young people he had just met at a local church trailing behind him. The cardinal invited them into the bar for a Coke and, as they were a choir, asked them to sing. Their fresh, beautiful voices soon had everyone's attention: bar patrons, security types, people coming in and out of the hotel. I walked up to the cardinal, whom I had known for a decade, and asked him what on earth was going on.

"I met them in their church," he said, "and I asked them to come here and sing about the real revolution, the revolution of Jesus Christ."

Cardinal Law wasn't finished yet, though. As the security goons watched with jaws agape, the archbishop of Boston took these 20 kids up to one of the hotel's posh restaurants, stood them all to a dinner the likes of which they had never seen before, and walked them up and down the buffet, explaining in fluent Spanish to these wonderful, impoverished youngsters what the various dishes were. The cardinal then encouraged them to sing again, sitting discretely nearby so that the goons wouldn't interfere. Everything simply stopped in its tracks. Guests, restaurant staff, and goons were serenaded for perhaps 20 minutes by songs about the love of Christ and the recently completed Christmas season.

In the midst of this impromptu concert, I walked over to where Law was sitting and said, "I'm not sure this is entirely accurate theologically, but I think you've performed a kind of exorcism here tonight." He smiled, and we shook hands, and knew that we were living a very special moment indeed -- a kind of foretaste of heaven.

As Law himself has made quite clear, he made serious errors of judgment in discharging his duties as archbishop of Boston. I believe the cardinal was right to lay down his charge. Still, as Boston celebrates Christmas without Cardinal Law, it seems only right that he be remembered in full. For the Bernard Francis Law who has been so bitterly criticized and attacked this past year is the same Law I saw working a small miracle of evangelical love that night in Havana, five years ago.

George Weigel, the author of "The Courage To Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church," is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

This story ran on page D11 of the Boston Globe on 12/22/2002.
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