There’s no precise record of what Pope St. Leo the Great told Attila the Hun outside Rome’s lofty gates, but we do know that the savage Hun—moved by the Pontiff’s heed—had a drastic change of heart and spared a defenseless Rome from his bloodthirsty horde. When a dictator meets a Pope, he must be prepared to face reflection on the state of his soul in addition to the state of his policies. Pope Francis crafted his own variation of Papal diplomacy last Sunday when he presented Fidel Castro a personal gift that Cuban tyrant will likely never forget.
In a highly publicized meeting, Francis presented Castro with a book of homilies by the late Jesuit Fr. Armando Llorente who died a Cuban exile in Miami in 2010. The significance? Fr. Llorente was Fidel Castro’s theology teacher who—after his exile to Miami—denounced Castro’s oppressive regime and publicly begged Castro to return to the Faith, even offering to personally hear his confession.
Armando Llorente was born in León, Spain, on Aug. 24, 1918, and entered the Jesuit order shortly after graduating high school. In 1942 he was sent to Cuba to complete his formation by teaching at the famed Colegio de Belén, where encountered a young Fidel Castro.
Before meeting Fr. Llorente, Castro had a miserable home life. In a 2007 interview from Miami, Fr. Llorente noted that until his school years Castro had felt unloved and unwanted, knowing he was conceived during an extramarital affair with his married father and a house servant. The priest mentored the naturally bright Castro on a variety of subjects, including theology, while the boy thrived socially and become the top student in his class.
Though the two corresponded for years, their friendship eventually soured with Castro’s involvement in government opposition. In 1958 while the revoltion was waging, Fr. Llorente, disguised as a shepherd slipped into the rebel outpost to confront his protégé. Llorente later described their conversation: “He confessed to me that he had lost the faith, and I responded to him: ‘Fidel, one thing is to lose your faith and another thing is to lose your dignity’.” After rising to power, Castro—displeased with the encounter—eventually banished the Jesuit order along with his beloved boyhood teacher in 1961.
Having fled to Miami, Fr. Llorente shepherded his fellow exiles and re-established the Agrupacion Catolica Universitaria, a Jesuit community with a strong Marian devotion. Fr. Llorente became a vocal critic of Castro and called on the Cuban dictator to repent, even offered to meet in person to hear his confession. In an interview before his death, Llorente described how he envisioned such a meeting would unfold:
“The first thing that we would do would be to give each other a big hug, laugh and remember the adventures that we had together, which were many and very beautiful.” Then, urging Castro’s repentance, Llorente would state, “Fidel, the moment of truth has arrived.”
Though Fr. Llorente died in 2010 without achieving such a vision, there’s no doubt Castro will always remember the influence the kind Jesuit provided during his troubled youth. One can pray that the aging tyrant, reflecting on the Pope’s gift during this Year of Mercy, will seek forgiveness and repent for the years of tyranny wrought upon his own people. Francis’ gesture echoes his late, fellow Jesuit by clearly declaring: “Fidel, the moment of truth has arrived.”