HAVANA, June 29 (RNS)--They come to the Havana Cathedral from throughout thecity: the 86-year-old woman who never stopped attending through years ofbeing pelted by eggs and public insults, the 16-year-old acolyte whowas changed from an atheist to someone for whom theRoman Catholic Church is "my religion, my life, everything"--simply by a nun's visit.

During the service, the red-white-and-blue Cuban flag standsdirectly behind Cardinal Jaime Ortega as he implores followers not tolook to the skies for God but to see the Almighty in the faces of"subversives," the poor and prisoners.

Outside the old stone cathedral, beggars sit upright on the groundfour abreast on either side of the exit, holding their hands heavenwardin gestures of supplication to the hundreds of worshippers as they leaveat the end of Mass.

This is the face of the church in Cuba, a slowly growing institutionthat is looked upon for food, medicine, and spiritual hope in a societythat has struggled through nearly a decade of economic depression sincethe breakup of the Soviet Union and the loss of the $6 billion a yearsubsidy Moscow once provided.

In 1998, when Pope John Paul II came to visit and hundreds ofthousands poured into fields in Santiago and the Plaza of the Revolutionin downtown Havana for public Masses, there was hope in some circles that Cuba would follow Poland's example and the walls of political oppression would cometumbling down amid public expressions of religious freedom.

That scenario was unrealistic, Cuban observers now admit. Thechurch has fought hard to maintain itself as the only significantindependent organization in this island nation of 11 million. However,the Catholic Church's careful expansion of its influence in areas fromeducation to humanitarian aid occurs on the razor's edge ofindependence, where there is a recurring fear that one day it will becast back into the 1960s and 1970s, when believers were harassed orimprisoned.

The Cuban government allowed four days of freedom when Pope JohnPaul II came to the island, said Havana Bishop Alfredo Petit.

"After that, the teacher said, `Boys, the playtime is over,'" Petitsaid.

The case of Elian Gonzalez once again focused attention on Cuba andthe role of the Catholic Church. With only an estimated 2,500 politicaldissidents on the island, the church is seen as the only institutionoutside the government capable of generating social change.

An estimated 40% of the people in the country are baptizedCatholics, but the percentage of those connected to the church rises to60% when one considers all the services people seek atsignificant moments in their lives, from births to funerals.

But parallels to Poland in the 1980s end there. When it gets rightdown to who comes to church in Cuba, after 40 years of often-bitterpersecution, less than 2% are considered active Catholics,according to church officials.

"The people, they are afraid," said Archbishop Luis Robles Diaz,papal nuncio to Cuba.

With good historical reason. In 1961, shortly after the revolution,Fidel Castro, once an altar boy, expelled 130 priests. Some others, likenow-Cardinal Ortega, were tossed into prison camps.

The climate for religious freedom, however, has improveddramatically since 1992, when Cuba officially became a secular ratherthan an atheist state, and Communist Party members were permitted tobelong to churches. In the months before the papal visit, the Cubangovernment allowed more foreign priests to enter the country and gavepermission for outdoor processions and other public displays ofreligion.

Starting in 1997, in a huge morale boost for the Christiancommunity, the country was once again allowed to celebrate Christmas publicly.

With the freedom, some of the fear has dissipated.

Fifty-one-year-old Ofelia Matos, a sewer operator and party member,returned to the Catholic faith of her parents after the 1992 law made itpossible.

"People don't have to be afraid as they were before to come tochurch," said Matos, wearing a wooden cross over a white blouse outsidethe cathedral. "With God, nothing is impossible. I search for the truthinside the Catholic Church. I realize the truth lies in the spirit ofGod."

The church is still not allowed to open parochial schools and isseverely restricted in its ability to publish materials and speak onradio or television. There are limits on visas for foreign priests andbuilding permits for new churches, and newfound freedoms of outdoorworship and door-to-door evangelization rest on tentative ground.

What it has on its side is a traditional place in Cuban culture andthe diplomatic authority of the Vatican in shaping internationalopinion.

"The breathing room doesn't come easy. The church's strength is itspersistence and its appeal. Time is on their side," said ThomasGarofalo, director of the Cuba Program for the U.S.-based CatholicRelief Services. "They continue to be the only institution in Cubansociety that can convoke the people except the government."