One quiet Sunday morning, September 14, 1993, the Catholic community
of Cuba was taken by surprise. Without prior announcement or advance
warning, the Catholic bishops of this Caribbean nation directed
that a pastoral message be read in all Catholic churches throughout
Cuba's Catholics were not the only ones surprised. The bishops'
statement sent shock waves across the entire island. Besides being
read from pulpits, copies of the letter were available for wide
distribution. They quickly got into the hands of the general population,
including Communist party leaders and the international press.
A Beacon of Hope
The bishops' message signaled the dawn of a new day in Cuba. The document, entitled "Love Hopes All Things,"
was a politely worded yet bold challenge addressed to all sectors
of Cuban society. It was a call to charity and to a national dialogue--to
a real sharing of power for all citizens. Such an invitation from
Church leaders might sound routine or even harmless in most of
the world's democratic societies.
But in a country whose one-party Communist government has been
the sole voice of the nation and controller of its destiny, a
call to open dialogue came across like the first tremors of an
earthquake. All of a sudden, from one coast to the other, Cuba
was engaged in a frenzy of discussion stirred up by the frank
and liberating statements of 11 Cuban bishops--statements like:
"We must recognize that in Cuba there are different points
of view on the situation of the country and on possible solutions,
and that dialogue is already taking place in a low voice in the
street, in the workplaces and in homes....
"All of us may have fragments of the truth but no one may
claim to have the whole truth....
"In Cuba there is only one party, one press, one radio and
one television. But the dialogue we are talking about must take
into account the diversity of means and people...."
All Cubans, the bishops suggested, "have to raise serious
questions" like: "Why are there so many Cubans who want
to leave and who do leave their country?...Why do professional
people, workers, artists, priests, athletes, military people,
activists or anonymous and simple people take advantage of any
temporary departure from the country, whether for personal or
official reasons, and remain abroad?"
The bishops, moreover, indicated that "certain bothersome
political practices should be eliminated." Among these were
"the closed and omnipresent quality of the official ideology,"
"excessive surveillance by the state security," "discrimination
on the basis of philosophical or political ideas or religious
belief" and the holding of citizens in prison "for economic
or political reasons."
How did the bishops' letter go over in Cuba? I asked Cardinal
Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, during an interview last
December at his residence in Old Havana. "I believe the letter
had a great reception by the people here in Cuba in general,"
he replied, "but not so by the Cuban government!...We speak
clearly about the role of the Catholic Church in Cuba, but there
is always a suspicion on the part of the government about the
Church in this country. There are times when this suspicion grows
and now is one of those times."
What does Cardinal Ortega want for Cuba? "I would like to
see a dialogue started whereby all segments of the country can
help the country find its way into the future. My desire is for
wider participation, dialogue and freedom here in this society."
The 59-year-old cardinal strikes those who meet him as being full
of youthful enthusiasm. His eyes seem to dance with joy and with
the inner assurance that God's Spirit is with all who struggle
for the truth--and that history is in his favor. Known as a man
whose love and cordial spirit cross all barriers, he seems clearly
attuned to the bishops' statement which describes itself as an
"appeal for love" and which holds up the ideal of charity
to the whole Cuban people--including the Cuban government!
This was one of the most fascinating and creative twists of the
bishops' pastoral. It issued a gentle yet clear call to the government
itself to be more loving and generous: "When our nation's
official spokespersons have said that the revolution is magnanimous,
we rejoice that such a notion stands on the horizon of our country's
leaders, for thus it is possible to encourage the hope that the
thought and language guiding the life of our people may become
more welcoming. Hatred is not a constructive force. In struggles
between love and hatred, the loser is always hatred....
"We would all like...to see love reigning among all Cuba's
children," the bishops continue, "a love that might
heal so many wounds opened by hatred, a love drawing all Cubans
together into a single family embrace, a love that would offer
to all the moment for forgiveness, amnesty and mercy...."
In their appeal for love, the bishops used several quotes from
José Marti (1853-1895), the great Cuban poet and leader
of the Cuban struggle for independence: "The only law for
authority is love," "Sad would be the fatherland that
had hatred for support" and "Love is the most excellent
Seeing bold comments such as these disseminated all over the island,
Cubans suddenly realized that a new dawn of self-confidence and
courage was arising in the Cuban Church.
Cuba Gets a New Cardinal
A second major event signaling the rebirth of the Cuban Catholic
community was Pope John Paul II's decision in October 1994 to
make Archbishop Ortega a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church.
This was the first time since the Revolution of 1959 that a Cuban
prelate was appointed cardinal.
Thanks to several years of patient efforts and quiet diplomacy
on the part of the Vatican, the relationship between the Cuban
government and the Church had been improving, especially since
1990. In 1992, for example, the constitution was amended making
it illegal to discriminate against Christians in Cuban society.
In this more cordial climate, Fidel Castro allowed 250 Cubans
to travel to Rome to attend the ceremony in which the pope elevated
Archbishop Ortega to the College of Cardinals, November 26, 1994.
On December 11, 1994, after Cardinal Ortega's return from Rome,
there was an exuberant celebration at the cathedral in Havana.
As The New York Times described the event, "So many
of the faithful turned up that they spilled out of the main cathedral
and into the surrounding square, where they cheered and waved
Cuban and Vatican flags. Inside, jubilant worshipers hoisted banners
that proclaimed 'Cuba has a Cardinal!' and shouted 'Long live
Though Cardinal Ortega's appointment received little notice in
the government-controlled press, he is highly esteemed by the Catholic
community in Cuba. "I think Cardinal Ortega could be a future
pope," asserted Brother Manuel Colliga to a small group of
Americans visiting Cuba last December. Brother Manuel is the Spanish-born
superior of the Hospital Brothers of San Juan de Dios who serve
at San Rafael's Home for the Elderly in Havana. He also praised
the cardinal for his "posture of love and for seeking the
welfare of all Cubans."
When Cardinal Ortega visited the Cuban community in Miami last
May 26-28, he received a tumultuous welcome. Resolutely refusing
their calls to criticize Cuban President Fidel Castro, he asked his fellow Cubans to put aside "old quarrels,
their sad and painful memories" and practice Christ's forgiving
love. Then on June 15, the cardinal, who is president of the Cuban
Bishops' Conference, addressed all the U.S. bishops at their semiannual
meeting in Chicago, receiving a standing ovation before and after
It is clear that both Cardinal Ortega and the American bishops
want to work for improved relations between their two countries.
The cardinal clearly wants to express his esteem for the Catholic
community in the United States. During his interview with St.
Anthony Messenger in December, he expressed his desire to
"send a message of gratitude and brotherhood to the U.S.
Church. It is a wonderful experience," he added, "to
collaborate with Christians even when our governments seem to
Cubans Turn to the Church for Answers
Perhaps the greatest sign of the revitalization of the Catholic
Church is the growing number of people, including young people,
who are coming back to the Church in recent years. The churches
are once again crowded for Sunday and feastday Masses. Candidates
for Baptism are numerous.
The reason for this, I was told repeatedly by Church leaders and
young people alike, was that many people, especially the youth,
have grown tired and skeptical of the worn-out Marxist rhetoric
of the revolutionary leaders. They are finding, instead, a new
authenticity in the Cuban Church, as well as a spiritual and ethical
message--a message that corresponds to the deeper values they seek
and which will more likely fill the great hunger in their hearts.
More and more people, both inside and outside the Church, are
looking to the Church as a credible voice in finding solutions
to the nation's problems. They are encouraged in seeing the Church
take a stand on social matters.
Cardinal Ortega admits that there are some who believe that the
renewed interest in the Church has arisen in part because of the
deteriorating political and economic situation in Cuba after the
collapse of Communism in the Soviet bloc. The poor are suffering
hunger and deprivation. Basic items like soap and toothpaste are
scarce. Rotating power blackouts are common.
"I believe these factors have some importance," the
cardinal told St. Anthony Messenger and visitors from Catholic
Relief Services. "But it seems to me that, over all, the
resurgence of interest in the Church is the result of an existential
hunger, an emptiness in the heart, a lack of feeling for life.
People experience a desire for God and are searching for solid,
eternal values--for values that transcend the economic and political
"The new attention given the Church is most notable among
the youth," affirms the cardinal. "But there are also
many middle-aged citizens who are returning to the Church after
20 or 30 years of absence. In Havana, in 1994, there were some
32,000 Baptisms. Two thousand of these were adults or young adults
who took part in RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults)
According to the estimate of one lay Catholic leader, the figure
for adult Baptisms 10 years ago, by way of contrast, would have
been "something like 250." At that time, he said, those
with spiritual yearnings were hesitant or afraid to profess their
faith publicly because of discrimination and hostility toward
the Church from the government.
"Catholics are not afraid anymore," the cardinal added.
"The images of the Sacred Heart and of the Virgin of Charity
are once again being placed in living rooms--and no longer hidden
away in grandmother's room," he said, laughing.
These two images had been familiar fixtures in Cuban Catholic
homes until official discrimination toward religion prompted many
families to move them to the back of the house or face them toward
the wall. "Who does not recall," the bishops had asked
in their pastoral letter, "that traditional popular image
of the Sacred Heart or that engraving of the Virgin of Charity
occupying the place of honor in the Cuban family's living room?"
That these religious images are returning to prominent locations
in the home is a clear sign of the Catholic revival.
Has the Time for Dialogue Arrived?
Another sign of new life in the Cuban Church is its deepening
social commitment in recent years (see sidebar below, "The Cuban
Church Expands Its Social Outreach"). This social
involvement provides an ideal meeting place for the Cuban government
and the Cuban Church--or at least a good starting point for dialogue
between the two groups.
Certainly, humanitarian concern and human development have been
ideals of Cuba's revolution. Most Cuban Catholics, including the
bishops, give the Cuban government high praise for its achievements
in health care and education and for its concern in raising the
living standards of the poor. Our group witnessed a great humanitarian
spirit and a cheerful dedication on the part of government medical
workers we observed in the state-run hospitals and clinics we
visited. And the same can be said for the religious and Churchworkers
we saw caring for the sick and elderly in the Church-run institutions.
In recent decades, Catholic social teaching has prompted the Church
to question its alignment with the rich and powerful and to embrace
a preferential option for the poor. This development puts the
Church in closer harmony with at least certain humanitarian goals
of the revolution. Might not this common social concern be a good
starting point for the Church and government to dialogue and work
together? A growing partnership between the Church and the government
in healing the country's social ills would be a sign of hope to
many Cubans in need.
It may take time, however, for sufficient trust to develop between
the government and the Church. The government seems wary at this
time of giving the Church too much encouragement or independence
in meeting the country's social needs. Bureaucratic red tape on
the part of the Cuban government often hampers the Church's social
The government's relationship with the Church has been approach/avoid
in the last few years; it sometimes seems to approach a friendlier
relationship and then suddenly backs off in avoidance. When our
CRS group visited San Rafael's Home for the Elderly, a private
Catholic institution, Brother Manuel Colliga told us that in Church-state
relations, "There have been times of closeness on the part
of the government and times of distance. And now is a time of
Several years ago, he said, Fidel Castro was very pleased with the way San Rafael's was being administered
by Brother Manuel's order of religious brothers. President Castro
even held up their home for the elderly as a model for government-run
clinics to imitate. But now is a time of coolness and caution
toward the Church, according to Brother Manuel.
One reason for the distance, he surmised, was the public statements
being made by the Cuban bishops, such as their pastoral message
of 1993. Other reasons for the government's wariness seem obvious:
the growing popularity of the Catholic Church, the courageous
return of many Cubans to their traditional faith, the elevation
of the new cardinal. In this context, even the new enthusiasm
of the Catholic laity in working for the nation's social improvement
could be perceived by the government as an unwelcome threat or
Catholic leaders say they are ready for dialogue. Both the bishops
of Cuba and the U.S. bishops have gone on record as wanting to
work for easing tensions between the two nations. They speak,
too, in favor of the progressive lifting of the embargo because
of the suffering it brings the poor. In their view, of course,
the removal of the embargo should be linked with a willingness
on all sides to enter dialogue and with concrete improvements
in human rights and religious freedom.
For the sake of the thousands of people suffering unnecessarily,
many Cubans hope the beginning of a true dialogue is not far away.
Sidebar: The Cuban Church Expands Its Social Outreach
One of the healthiest expressions of the Church's vitality in
Cuba is its growing commitment to the social needs of the Cuban
people. In 1992, Caritas Cuba was established in Cuba with the
approval of President Fidel Castro. Caritas is an international
Catholic relief organization, based in Rome, with branches in
over 100 countries. Caritas's charitable efforts include development
assistance, emergency aid and social action.
Since its inception, Caritas Cuba, composed largely of committed
lay Catholics from all dioceses of the island, has worked zealously
for needy Cubans. It has secured nearly $20 million worth of donated
medicines from European and U.S. donors.
U.S. donors have been an important help to the work of Caritas
Cuba through Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the official overseas
aid and development agency of Catholics in the United States.
Last December 11-15, I was invited by CRS to accompany a small
CRS delegation which delivered 1,000 pounds of medicines for Caritas
Cuba to distribute. The group was headed by CRS Deputy Executive
Director Louise Wilmot.
The shipment of medicines was the fifth of its kind made to Cuba
in the last three years. The shipment brought the total value
of humanitarian aid delivered to Cuba by Catholic Relief Services
to nearly $7 million. CRS complies with U.S. and Cuban laws in
its shipments of humanitarian aid. The shipments do not violate
the embargo, falling, as they do, within categories of humanitarian
assistance approved by Washington and prescribed by international
CRS hoped that, as a writer, I could help communicate to donors
in the United States the situation of the Catholic Church in Cuba,
the genuine need of the Cuban people for medicines and other emergency
supplies and verification that the supplies are being responsibly
delivered through the joint efforts of CRS and Caritas Cuba.
Our group saw to it that the boxes of medical supplies we brought
arrived intact in a Havana warehouse. Caritas officials convincingly
explained to us how they carefully monitor the movement of these
supplies--at each step of their distribution--and see to it that
the medicines truly reach those intended.
We also visited hospitals, clinics and homes for the elderly--both
state-run and Church-run--and met with medical professionals. We
also spoke with actual people benefiting from the medicines and
foods CRS and Caritas Cuba have been distributing since 1993.
In addition to the delivery of medicines, CRS sponsored a workshop
for the staff of Caritas at the time of our visit. Conducted by
CRS/Cuba Director Chris Gilson, the workshop was designed to teach
Caritas workers helpful skills in organizing human development
projects and utilizing aid effectively once it arrives.
The dedication of the Caritas members to the service of Cubans
in need was inspiring. While celebrating the Eucharist with the
men and women of Caritas, I experienced the truth of a claim heard
often during our visit: "The Church of Cuba is alive and
I also had the opportunity to accompany Wilmot and José
Ramón Perez, assistant director of Caritas Cuba, by automobile,
to visit Bishop Fernando Prego of Santa Clara, president of Caritas
Cuba. The city of Santa Clara sits some 160 miles east of Havana.
Bishop Prego assured us that the medical shipments were a great
help to many Cubans. Thanks to CRS donations, he said, "Insulin
has come in at times when there was no insulin in the country.
Antibiotics and analgesics have also been desperately needed.
Because of the large size of these shipments," he also noted,
"these medicines reach children's hospitals and rural hospitals
that might otherwise be passed over."
The Church's involvement in these humanitarian efforts, he added,
has brought a new spirit of respect between Church representatives
and the medical staffs of government-run hospitals. Previously
priests and sisters were not allowed to enter hospitals to carry
out pastoral services. "The delivery of these medicines has
helped soften the situation," observes Bishop Prego, "so
that now nuns and priests are able to enter any time they want.
It's as though the hospital officials have seen the goodwill of
the Church and this is creating a new friendship between Churchworkers
and the medical professionals."
On December 3, which is health-care day in Latin America, Bishop
Prego invited medical workers to a special Mass at the Cathedral
of Santa Clara. "More than 120 people attended," Bishop
Prego says. "This would have been inconceivable five years
ago!...The CRS medicines delivered through Caritas are creating
a humanitarian relationship between the Church and the doctors."
Meanwhile, the CRS shipments to Cuba go on. On March 4, only nine
days after the downing of the two American planes, Catholic Relief
Services sent into Cuba $100,000 worth of urgently needed insulin
that would go bad if held too long. Another shipment of medicines
was planned for April.
Sidebar: U.S. Catholic Leaders Respond to Downing of Airplanes
On March 1, the following statement
was issued by Bishop Daniel P. Reilly of Worcester, Massachusetts,
chairman of the Committee on International Policy, United States
"The downing on February 24 of
the two civilian aircraft by Cuban fighter planes is a clear violation
of international law and an unjustified use of deadly force. We
express our deepest sympathy to the families and friends of the
lost pilots and crew. Their loss is our loss. Our prayers and
sympathy are with them in these tragic times.
"We are also disturbed because
the brutal attack on civilian aircraft, combined with the Cuban
crackdown on the dissident organization known as Concilio Cubano,
sets back hopes for necessary dialogue within Cuba and between
Cuba and the United States.
"In responding to these unjustifiable
acts we urge the United States and groups within the United States
to clearly distinguish between the Cuban government, which must
be held responsible for these actions, and the Cuban people who
live with an autocratic and undemocratic regime and have no voice
in these actions. Punishing the people of Cuba who long for religious
liberty and political freedom is no way to respond to the irresponsible
actions of the Cuban government.
"The United States should do all
it can to hasten the prospect of peaceful change in Cuba without
worsening the plight of the Cuban people. Together with the bishops
of Cuba, we seek a genuine dialogue within Cuba and between Cuba
and the United States, focused on democratic values, human rights
and religious liberty. As we condemn without reservation th is
barbaric act, we continue to search for ways for the United States
and Cuba to advance the rights and dignity of the Cuban people.
There is no excuse for the destruction of civilian aircraft, but
overreaction to these tragic events can retard, rather than advance,
the cause of freedom in Cuba."
Jack Wintz, O.F.M., is senior editor of this publication and
editor of Catholic Update. He is also author of the inspirational
book, Lights: Revelations of God's Goodness (St. Anthony
Messenger Press). For more information, see our products section.