Church At The Centre
- Pope Benedict XVI visited Cuba in late March, 2012
- An atheist country till the early 1990s, the Catholic Church’s influence in Cuba is rising
- There has been acceptance in Raul Castro’s government of Cuba’s socio-economic problems, need for changes, and the role of the Church
During the flight to Mexico, on the same trip that would take him to Cuba in late March, Pope Benedict XVI told a journalist: “Today it is obvious that the Marxist ideology as it was conceived no longer responds to reality: it is no longer possible to respond to or to build up a society in this way. New models must be found, patiently and constructively.”
The pope—a theologian, analyst and wise man, who understood and lived through the great events that shook Europe in the last century—wanted to be with us Cubans in this Jubilee Year, to celebrate four centuries of the presence of our patron saint, the Virgin of Charity, in our land. He was also aware that he was visiting Cuba in a unique moment of our history.
The pope’s words, spoken only days before his reception in Cuba, provoked no rejection from the Cuban government. That government, officially presided over since February 2008 by Raul Castro, has initiated a new stage in the country’s life. It has applied various economic and social reforms, which suggests that, in truth, the socio-economic proposals born in Marxism and rooted in a materialistic conception of the world and of man—offering no transcendent reference point and placing limits that cannot be supported and are counter-productive to human freedom—have not been effective in Cuba.
Over the last two years, events in Cuba have brought it to international attention in a new way. Since 1959 and the triumph of the popular revolution led by Fidel Castro, Cuba frequently made headlines. The initial conflicts with the Church, emigration, the attack on the Bay of Pigs, the North American trade embargo, the wars in Africa and the proximity of the Cuban government to international revolutionary movements (especially in Latin America, when such movements were widespread), were the stories that brought Cuba into the news. Equally known is the long and costly conflict with the United States, which on occasion appears to be the cause, and at other times the effect, of all the aforementioned.
But since April 2010, a new chapter has begun to be written in our most recent history and noticed internationally. That is when I sent a letter to President Raul Castro, expressing my personal rejection and that of the Church, of the government’s opposition to the wives of political prisoners and other women, known as the “Women in White”, who gathered after Mass each Sunday outside the Church of Santa Rita in Havana.
In return, I received a positive verbal response from President Raul Castro.
In February 2008, together with the bishops of Cuba, I was able to greet Raul Castro when he received the secretary of state of the Holy See, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who was visiting Cuba to preside over events and celebrations on the 10th anniversary of the unforgettable visit of Pope John Paul II. A few months later, in November, we met again in the city of Camaguey, for the beatification ceremony of Fray Jose Olallo Valdes, a 19th century religious leader who had dedicated his life to serving the poor and the sick in Camaguey. The attendance of the new head of government suggested a new approach not only towards the need for socio-economic changes, but also towards relations with the Church.
But the most significant and transcendent step in this relationship with the Church was Raul Castro’s positive answer to my letter of April 2010, in which he advised me that he had put an end to the actions against the wives and relatives of the prisoners, and made known his desire to understand, with the Church’s intervention, their demands.
It was an unknown and unexpected gesture, one that surprised us. It was not the first time Cuban bishops had appealed to the authorities to intercede on behalf of the prisoners and their families—an act appropriate to the mission of the Church—but we’d almost never received an answer. The Church in Cuba had never been recognised as a respected envoy of the people. My letter generated an answer, and the answer generated a dialogue.
That dialogue led to the release of 53 prisoners from a group of 75 who had been jailed in 2003. Another group of more than 70 was later released, so that between July 2010 and March 2011, more than 126 people were freed, most of whom travelled to Spain with their families. Many moved to Miami or other US cities; 12 preferred to remain in Cuba. In December 2011, the government released nearly 3,000 prisoners, motivated, according to Raul Castro, by the coming visit of Pope Benedict XVI in March 2012 and out of respect for the 400th anniversary of the patron saint of Cuba.
The dialogue has enabled us to discuss other matters of interest to the Church and society. We have spoken with the authorities—not only with the president—about the country’s grave economic situation, the fears and demands of its citizens, their doubts, longings and hopes. We know these realities through the wide net of parishes, churches and chapels our priests attend around the country, and through the religious and missionary personnel who visit the sick—people like the volunteer workers of Caritas, catechists and other pastoral agents who visit the cities and countryside.
Our pathway as pastors in Cuba must be Cuban men and women, with all their dreams and frustrations, with their illusions and expectations, whether possible or unrealistic. There is in fact a changing situation in Cuba, perhaps with twists and turns still difficult to define and with goals that are as yet unclear. The change has begun, sporadically and with an uncertain road map, despite some who do not desire or recognise any change. In this evolving social context, in which the most varied social expressions seek to be heard one way or another, it has become possible for the Church to be recognised as an institution that plays a role in Cuban society.
We do not know how far the dialogue will advance, nor do we know its true scope or potential results. But dialogue is the only way the Church seeks the material and spiritual well-being of Cubans. It is an essential part of our mission. In the midst of the global economic crisis, Cuba is living out its own crisis. Unable to escape the larger one, we are also living through a spiritual or existential crisis. The “Cuban dream” initiated in January 1959, and mixed with the simple intuition and honest longing of the poor, has not been achieved, at least not as had been hoped.
True, there have been important social achievements, but there have also been pain, shortages and confrontations, too many limitations to freedom, and frustration. For years the Church, both publicly and privately, has urged authorities to put into practice the changes necessary to improve life for Cubans, enabling the country to achieve its true potential. The Church encourages the changes taking place and hopes new changes will be introduced for the good of the country and its citizens.
“In this process”—Pope Benedict said while on board the plane that brought him to Latin America—“which requires patience but also determination, we intend to help in a spirit of dialogue, to avoid traumas”. For that reason we wish to convene all in an effort toward reconciliation and the renewal of hope.
The ashes of dreams are of no help in building a promising future. A transformation of hearts is required; that is why we act according to our Christian faith.
Cardinal Jaime Ortega is the archbishop of Havana