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The Church in Cuba:
Is a New Day Dawning?

The recent downing of two airplanes near Cuba, piloted by Cuban refugees out of Miami, has thrust Cuban-American tensions into the news again. The screaming headlines may have obscured the amazing happenings taking place in Cuba's Catholic Church and the efforts of U.S. Catholic Relief Services to bring humanitarian aid.

By Jack Wintz, O.F.M.


PHOTO (C) 1996 JACK WINTZ, O.F.M.

(Above) The early morning sun glows off Havana's majestic seafront promenade, the Malecon.



A Beacon of Hope
Cubans Turn to Church
Sidebar: Church's Outreach
Cuba's New Cardinal
Dialogue Time?
Sidebar: Airplane Downing


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 the land.

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 law."

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 the Church.'"

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 his address.

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 be separated."

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 factors.

"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) programs."

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 efforts.

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 distance."

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 competition.

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 law.

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 well!"

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 Catholic Conference:

"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.
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