Psychologists and social scientists tell us that first impressions are very important and that we begin to form them quickly, perhaps as fast as five seconds after we first meet someone.
Late last March, I met Cuba.
My three days in the island nation—partly to be present for Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic visit and partly to see the work of Caritas Cubana that is supported by Catholic Relief Services—left me with some very strong first impressions.
Of course, I realize that a three day trip can never make one an expert or hardly give a full picture, especially of something subtle and complex. Three days nevertheless can be full of first impressions, and that certainly was my experience in Cuba.
There can hardly be a more beautiful sight than looking out on the turquoise water of Havana Harbor to the city’s skyline. And nothing is more refreshing than the Carribean breezes that soothe the heat of the day.
The marvelous renovations and reconstructions in old Havana, funded primarily by Unesco, stand in stark contrast to adjacent delapidated, deteriorated structures. Fabulous architecture, unkept and uncared for, crumbles like sand castles swept by the incoming tide.
The demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s caused great collateral damage in Cuba. With Soviet subsidies gone, so much fell into disrepair, so many became desperate.
Ubiquitous billboards remind you that society needs socialism, that socialism is the answer to all hopes and concerns. ¡Mas Socialismo!¡Socialismo hoy, mañana, y siempre!
Yet, socialism has left so many on the margins of society in Cuba. Socialism has led to the control of peoples' lives, restricted their freedoms and caused people to seek a better life elsewhere.
BAGHDAD—In her book “Kitchen Table Wisdom,” Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen reminds us that while the simple loving gesture of “kissing the boo-boo” does not take away the pain and suffering that a child feels, it does take away the loneliness felt in suffering.
Suffering and fear dominate the lives of so many, too many, around our world.
Try as we might, we cannot alleviate the suffering, end the fear, but we can stand in solidarity with those who suffer, who are fearful, to help them realize they are not alone.
I reflected on these matters as the airbus carrying Bishop George Murry, S.J., and I prepared for our mid-morning landing at Baghdad International Airport, the former Saddam International Airport.
We were coming to Iraq in early October at the invitation of the bishops of the Chaldean, Latin, Armenian and Syrian Catholic communities. They had been hoping for some time that bishops from the United States would make a pastoral visit to Baghdad to see first hand what life is like in their country.
Despite the cautions we heard about our safety, we wanted to go. We wanted to express to our brother bishops and to the people of the church in Iraq the love and support of our church in the United States. We wanted to assure them they are not alone.
After being greeted at the airport by Bishop Shlemon Warduni, Chaldean Auxiliary Bishop of Baghdad, and Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, the Apostolic Nuncio in Baghdad and Jordan, Bishop Murry and I stood in the line to have our passports checked.
I saw a man who had been a passenger on our plane running to the open arms of a man who had been waiting for him. They embraced, kissed and cried. He had come home, I thought. Even though his country was so torn by war, even though danger, violence and death were daily events, he had come home.
As we drove from the airport, we saw workers planting palm trees along the route. A nice beautification project, I thought, but the trees did not do much to camouflage the armored vehicles lingering on both sides of the street and the Iraqi army and police with automatic weapons clustered near the vehicles or walking in patrols.
My other first impressions: roads marred by ruts and blocked by rolls of barbed wire and huge barrels; cement walls 10-feet tall around buildings; check points everywhere; people wary, vigilant, watchful for random acts of violence.
In the next three days, we met and talked with our brother bishops. We visited the people they shepherd in the churches, convents, schools and hospitals of their communities in Baghdad. We saw the programs and services of Caritas Iraq and met with Caritas staff.
Each of the bishops expressed their great concern about the plight of Christians. Many have been internally displaced in Iraq having left their homes and belongings for what they deem is the relative safety of the north; others have left the country as refugees to Lebanon or Syria, hoping to begin their lives anew.
Many who have fled hope to come to our country, but because our government has put a hold on Iraqi refugees, they remain in limbo in Syria, Lebanon or Egypt, insecure and marginalized.
(I have met Iraqi refugee families who have come to the Diocese of Tucson. Like many Iraqis who have come to our country as refugees, their circumstances are difficult. Unable to find jobs, not knowing the language, receiving little government support, they find themselves traumatized again. We are working as a community to help them.)
The bishops encourage their people to stay in Iraq, this land that has been home to Christians from the very beginning of the church. The people, though, ask their bishops if they can assure their safety. The bishops are frustrated that they cannot give that assurance. Christians continue to leave.
Unsafe Even in Church
You never want to get bad news when you are far from home—to be told that a loved one has died or that some kind of disaster has taken place.