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[Educated at the elite Jesuit run Colegio de Belén in Havanna, Fidel Castro was deeply influenced by his teachers who, he says, ‘valued character, rectitude, honesty, courage and the ability to make sacrifices.’ He did not, however, respect ‘the mechanical, dogmatic, irrational methods that were employed’ in their approach to religious education. His description of a retreat, which he gives in this excerpt from a series of interviews with Brazilian priest Fr. Frei Betto, will unfortunately ring familiar with many who passed through Catholic schools before Vatican II.]

When we were 16, 17 or 18, our spiritual exercises included meditation. During those three days of the religious retreat, we meditated on philosophical and theological topics, but usually the theme was punishment—which was most likely, according to all indications, in the circumstances—and reward. The reward didn’t inspire our imagination, but the punishment was described in such a way as to do just that.

I remember long sermons for meditation on hell—its heat and the suffering, anguish and desperation it caused. I don’t know how such a cruel hell as the one that was described to us could have been invented, because such severity is inconceivable, no matter how great a person’s sins may have been. Moreover, the punishment for venial sins was way out of proportion. Even to doubt something that wasn’t understood regarding a certain dogma was a sin. You had to believe it, because if you didn’t and had a fatal accident or died for any other reason while in that state of sin, you could be condemned to hell. There was really no proportion between the individual’s sins and eternal punishment.

The idea was to arouse the imagination. I still remember an example that was often given in those spiritual exercises... We were told, “so you may have an idea of eternity, my children, imagine a steel ball the size of the world [and I tried to imagine a steel ball the size of the world, with a circumference of 40,000 kilometres] whose surface is grazed by the proboscis of a fly once every 1,000 years. Well, the fly will wear away the steel ball—that is, that steel ball the size of the world will disappear as a result of the fly’s slight touch once every 1,000 years—before hell ends, and, even after that, it will go on forever.” That was the nature of meditation. I’d describe it as a form of mental terrorism; sometimes those explanations turned into mental terrorism.

It’s near the end of the twentieth century, and, not so long—only 40 years (I’m amazed at what a relatively short time)—ago, one of the best schools in our country provided this kind of an education. I don’t think it was a good way to foster religious feeling.

Fidel Castro (from Fidel and Religion, 1987)

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