Vatican softens stance on communist states

IN TWO weeks time, President Fidel Castro of Cuba will stop on the threshold of the Pontifical Library in the Vatican for a symbolic…

IN TWO weeks time, President Fidel Castro of Cuba will stop on the threshold of the Pontifical Library in the Vatican for a symbolic handshake with Pope John Paul.

This will be a remarkable meeting between two of the world's longest standing leaders, between the Pope who contributed so largely to the downfall of eastern bloc communism, and one of the few remaining communist leaders on today's world stage.

Today, the 76 year old Pope celebrates the 50th anniversary of his ordination as a priest in Cracow. At a time when international media interest has tended to concentrate exclusively on his age and health problems, it is perhaps understandable that the subtle workings of the Vatican's complex diplomatic machine sometimes go unnoticed.

Yet, this has been a week when the Vatican appeared to achieve a significant breakthrough in relations with Cuba while at the same time furthering difficult dialogue with two other Communist powers. Vietnam and China.

Not only is Dr Castro due to visit the Pope while in Rome for a UN World Food Summit, but that visit might be reciprocated by a papal trip to Cuba.

Central to improved VaticanCuba relations was a five day visit to Cuba earlier this week by the Holy See's "so called foreign minister". French Archbishop Jean Louis Tauran. After meetings with Dr Castro, the Foreign Minister. Mr Roberto Robaina, and church leaders, Archbishop Tauran said plans for a future papal visit to Cuba are being made.

Archbishop Tauran's talks in Cuba concentrated on the many practical problems faced there by the church, including limited access to the media, work visa problems for missionary nuns and priests and the problems encountered by the Catholic charity, Caritas (the Cuban government routinely sequesters 80 per cent of medicines sent to Caritas and other similar bodies).

The climate of his talks, however, was doubtless much helped by the fact that he made no criticism of Cuba's political system, while at the same time condemning the US embargo on Cuba, thus reflecting comments made in Rome two weeks ago by French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, prefect of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace.

Vatican officials are cautious about the extent of improved relations with Cuba. They suggest that while the Pope and Dr Castro may have an "historic embrace" in the Vatican later this month, the real test will come with the papal visit to Cuba since the Pope will only travel if he and his advisers are satisfied that he can move freely within Cuba.

If Vatican relations with Cuba can be said to have achieved a breakthrough, the same can hardly be said of relations with China and Vietnam. Senior diplomat Archbishop Claudio Celli returned to Rome this week after difficult dialogue with the Vietnamese authorities regarding a number of appointments in the country's 2 million strong indigenous Catholic Church.

In particular. Archbishop Cell attempted to overcome the Vietnamese government's refusal to name successors to Cardinal Nguyen Van Binh (86) of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and Cardinal Trinh Van Can of Hanoi.

An indication of the climate in church state relations in Vietnam comes from the news that, while in Ho Chi Minh city, Archbishop Celli was refused permission to celebrate Mass. The Vietnamese authorities told him that this would not be appropriate since he was on a diplomatic mission.

The question of church appointments also featured in the latest chapter in the complex relations between the People's Republic of China and the Vatican.

This week the Pope appointed Monsignor Joseph Zen as coadjutor Bishop of Hong Kong, thus perhaps pre empting any temptation on the part of China to appoint a bishop from its own Catholic Patriotic Association (the state run parallel Catholic Church which does not acknowledge the primacy of Rome) to the seat of Hong Kong when the present bishop, Cardinal Wu Cheogchung, retires in 2000.