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REPORTAGE FROM CUBA
from issue no. 02/03 - 2008

The Church in the times of Raúl


On 24 February Raúl Castro became the new President of Cuba. For the island a new season has opened. Also for the Church


by Davide Malacaria


Fidel Castro with his brother Raúl

Fidel Castro with his brother Raúl

And thus, a world ends. After almost fifty years, Fidel Castro has left. He did it his way, through a letter entrusted to Granma, the Party newspaper. A communiqué that closes an age and opens new perspectives for this Caribbean island, so small geographically and yet so hugely important in world geopolitics. In his place, on 24 February, his brother Raúl was elected, to whom since 2006, the date on which Fidel’s health began to fail, the destiny of the country had been entrusted. Younger than his brother, Raúl has many times led it to be believed that he wanted to initiate a season of reforms. In his last speech of the previous legislature (28 December) he asserted: “We are in agreement with the many who have warned us about the glut of prohibitions and legal measures, that do more harm than good. We can say that the greater part of them were correct and just at the time they were decided, but many have been superseded by life and behind every mistaken prohibition a large measure of illegality is hidden”. A phrase re-echoed in his first speech as president. And the new president has not failed during these years to make openings to the Western world, including the United States, historical enemies of the small island. The Cuban Church therefore finds itself facing a new season, shaped, presumably, by a reformist Socialism whose features are still unknown to the Party leaders themselves, given that whatever the model adopted it will have to take into account a complex national and international situation.
“We do not know how things will evolve”, says Monsignor Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, Vicar General of Havana and expert on Cuban affairs. “In ’60, with the revolution, the island already went through profound change... My hope is that in this further change there will be no room for violence. Raúl is a very pragmatic person and a man of goodwill. I have a personal liking for him. Flanking him there are men who, though having also been part of the regime, have a differnt attitude and a different vision of things. I believe that under their leadership the situation in Cuba will improve both from the economic and political point of view. But this renewal will happen gradually, without jerks. Among the novelties I believe that there is room for a more positive presence of the Church, so that it can live and act as a leaven in the midst of Cuban society and people”. But, Monsignor de Céspedes recommends, pressure should not be exerted, one should not presume that everything will change immediately, on pain of disaster.
“President Raúl Castro has said many times that criticism can be advanced: a statement we consider very positive “, says Monsignor Juan García Rodríguez, Archbishop of Camagüey and President of the Cuban Episcopal Conference: “the only way to correct situations is to know what is wrong. As a Church, what we ask of the government is greater coverage in the media. Today the television broadcasts the Via Crucis of the Pope, and other events involving the Pontiff, but it only offers limited space to the local Church. Every bishop has the possibility of appearing in the media on important feasts, but easier access would be desirable. Moreover the Church complains about the lack of buildings for worship in the suburbs and new areas going up, because up until now the authorization to build has not been granted. Another issue on which to go forward is the prison pastoral. Since the ’nineties priests have been allowed to visit prisoners, following a request from the latter. But we hope that community services can be held, at least on important feasts. At the moment this is allowed in some dioceses, and some jails, in others not...”. In reality, what is implied by the prelate’s words is explained to us by Father Noël, a priest concerned with the prisoners’ pastoral, is that everything goes through personal relationships, and that, often, they are more important than the bureaucratic quagmire. The fact remains that the possibility of visiting prisoners, introduced at the beginning of the ’nineties, was one of the pointers that something was changing in the relations between regime and Church. Father Noël takes us to the Virgen de la Mercedes, perhaps the sanctuary dearest to the hearts of the faithful of the capital, situated in the heart of old Havana. Here a large hall has been assigned to the poor, particularly the old, who are provided with food. We enter as the volunteers are cleaning up, while others are busy in the nearby kitchens from which inviting aromas emerge. They explain in detail to us the little they can do to deal with the many derelicts crowding this corner of the city. Little certainly, but charity has measures that do not correspond to ours...
Monsignor Juan de Dios Hernández Ruiz, Auxiliary Bishop and Vicar General of Havana, as well as Secretary of the Cuban Episcopal Conference, also tells of the hopes and the changes underway on the island. But, he observes, the Gospel is and will always remain a stone of scandal here as in the rest of the world: “The mystery of the Church reveals itself only through faith. But we render this mystery visible through works, in particular those that contribute to the dignity of man. For this the Church must have the necessary space for its evangelizing mission to reach all of society”. Specifically, he emphasizes the need to be able to build churches. But this, he adds, is already the subject of negotiations with the regime. Negotiations that include other requests from the Catholic Church. “I believe that, in the end, many problems can be overcome”, he asserts, “no least because, in the current state of things, there are no great limitations on the action of the Church, but rather more difficulties arising out of attitudes and positions that are the legacy of a difficult past. It will be facts, more than the words, that will slowly make relations easier”.
Indeed, past relations between Church and regime have been difficult, shaped by restrictions and asperity.

Old Havana

Old Havana

A complex history
“The Cuban Church did not arise in opposition to modernity, quite the contrary”, explains Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, who is also a member of the Pontifical Council of Culture. “The Enlightenment reached the island from Spain, where the major spokesman for that current of thought was a priest, Father Benito Jerónimo Feijoo. And this in the face of a Spanish State that, inversely, appeared conservative. The same Father Félix Varela, considered the father of the Cuban nation, was also an Enlightenment thinker. Because of this the Cuban independence movements, led by groups shaped by the humanist Enlightenment, were not at all adverse to the Church”. Independence, won after the intervention of the United States and the so-called Spanish-American war (1898), set the country in the American sphere of influence, adds Monsignor de Céspedes, revealing a little known detail: the only State to ask, in vain, that the Cubans be invited to the peace negotiations from which they had been excluded was the Holy See. The Cuban independence seekers, for their part, celebrated the victory at the sanctuary of the Virgen de the Caridad del Cobre, the patroness of Cuba... “The Constitution of the new nation, of liberal stamp, even if not professedly anti-Catholic, was certainly not very favorable to the Church. It was a difficult period”, continues the monsignor. Then, he explains, with the passing of the years, the relationships between State and Church began to smooth out. But it did not last very long.
It was 1959 when the revolution of the barbudos began. “At first the Church looked on the revolutionary movement with sympathy”, explains Monsignor Hernández Ruiz: “Many Catholics took part in the conflict and various priests accompanied the guerrillas. On the other hand the regime of Fulgencio Batista was indeed unacceptable... The agrarian reform, one of the first provisions of the new regime, was also looked on very favorably. Then things changed”. Indeed, things began to change when the revolutionaries, a little because of ideological affinity, a little in order to confront the growing pressure of the United States (culminating with the failed landing in the Bay of Pigs), moved towards the Soviet Union. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962, that led the world within an inch of the Third World War, turned that approach into a stranglehold. The Soviet embassy in Cuba, in its looming, deliberate impressiveness, appears more the symbol of a hegemony than of relations between allied States. “It was a critical period”, Monsignor de Céspedes resumes, “the Church produced some very harsh documents against the regime, which replied in an equally harsh manner”. In 1961 about 131 priests were expelled. On the island only two hundred remained. The same fate befell the male and female religious. Of the many Orders present in Cuba only a few dozen remained. The revolution was young and so was Fidel, explains Monsignor Hernández Ruiz: “And that had its cost”. Difficult years for the Church. But not bloody. Some priests went through forced labor in the re-education camps, prescribed for minor crimes, whereas only one religious was sent to jail proper, the Franciscan Friar Miguel Angel Loredo. In general, however, they were charged with petty crimes, not for their religious beliefs. Father Loredo, in particular, was sentenced for having protected an exile. “I remember him well”, recalls Monsignor de Céspedes, “we were friends. He was a victim of a plot. A painful case... It is also unfortunately true, on the other hand, that some Catholics, in the attempt to rebel against the regime, used Christianity in an arbitrary way. However, in spite of the difficulties, things went ahead. When the Roman Empire fell there were those who thought that everything was finished. Saint Augustine did not think that at all, indeed he explained that the affairs of the world would continue in their course... It wasn’t a matter of seeking a confrontation with the regime, a path that would only have entailed disasters, but ways of dialogue. And that could only come about through personal contacts. For that matter as youngsters we had studied with many of those who were in the government. There was a bond that went beyond roles. I remember a heated discussion with one of them who came to visit me, in the evening. At a certain point I said to him: “Wait, perhaps we should stop, and go and have a glass of wine over there...”. Everything passed through personal relations. It is the most human way to relate to each other, the only human way”. For Monsignor Hernández Ruiz, in those years the position of the Church was characterized by closure, by a defensive position. “It was with the ecclesial encounter of 1986, the result of five years of reflection on the part of the Cuban Church, that that attitude finally changed. After that encounter the Church became aware that it was called on to exit from that position of closure and to resume its evangelizing mission. And that it had to learn to coexist with a socialist State. It was an important step, not least because from that moment the State began to understand that it need not fear the Church”.
“Nevertheless those were not only dark years”, Monsignor de Céspedes recalls with a nostalgic tinge: “I remember the fidelity of the Christians who stayed behind and who went through all these experiences with their joyous faith... In the ’sixties I was parish priest of three churches outside the city. And I well recall the festive atmosphere, the joy. We lived in the joy of the faith, without complaining too much...”.

Fidel Castro and Pope Wojtyla

Fidel Castro and Pope Wojtyla

The Pope’s visit
After the collapse of the Berlin Wall the regime found itself free again from the suffocating embrace of Moscow, but, at the same time, it saw the greatest support of the national economy fade away. A dramatic crisis began, culminating in the harshening of the economic embargo imposed by the United States (1992, the so-called “Torricelli Law”). Cuba responded by initiating the so-called “special period”: a dual coinage was established (one currency for the more essential products and another for the less necessary ones or those coming from abroad), maximum efforts were put into tourism, also with the contribution of foreign enterprises, chains of State businesses were created to drain currency into the depleted coffers of the State and citizens were granted the possibility of setting up small private businesses. Novelties that were no way insignificant for a communist regime. But the poverty spread.
It was in that atmosphere that, in January of 1998, John Paul II arrived. Of that visit people remember the great procession – in Cuba previously processions were an extraordinary event – the mass in Revolution Square, the more than cordial greetings between Fidel and Wojtyla, the Pope who condemned the embargo without reservations... And more. Monsignor Ramón Suárez Polcari, Vicar General of Havana, who had the task of organizing that visit, recalls: “It was indeed an extraordinary moment. But I believe it should be emphasized that already the very organization of the visit was an historical fact. For the first time the Cuban Church and the Cuban State had to do something together. Not only: the State was forced to interact with the Holy See itself. A hitherto unthinkable collaboration that opened a new season for the Cuban Church”.
That visit marked a new season in the relations between the regime and the Catholic Church. To which a new attitude of the Líder máximo also contributed. As many point out, with the advance of age, he seemed to smooth out a certain brusqueness. “At a supper, which I had been invited to along with other bishops”, Monsignor de Céspedes recounts, “the President told me that in his life he had met two saints: Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa... “. And the prelate tells us of the visit of Mother Teresa to Cuba. Hours and hours talking to Fidel in a room. When they came out, he recalls, Fidel said to his guest: “You can come here also with a thousand nuns”. And she, smiling: “But I don’t have a thousand nuns...”. When one talks of personal relations... Like the special one between the President and Sister Tekla Famiglietti, Superior of the Brigidine nuns (Order of the Most Holy Savior of Saint Brigid) to whom was donated a renovated convent in the very center of Havana.

A new president
The wind of change is blowing also through the Communist Party. Even if never prohibited explicitly, it was impossible for a member of the Party to profess the Catholic faith openly. For some years now, instead, there has been no incompatibility perceived between the two things. “I know that there are people in the Party who practice the Catholic faith”, Monsignor García Rodríguez asserts, “and not only: there are catechists and missionaries among them also... It’s something new”. As the vigorous expansion of the “prayer houses”, or “mission houses” is new. Private rooms where Christians gather to pray. Monsignor García Rodríguez continues: “They have existed now for many years in the areas where churches are lacking, in the suburbs or important parts of the city. Someone makes his home available so that people can come together to pray. The children do catechism there, the adults the catechumenate to receive the sacraments. At times mass is celebrated there. Once, although it was never prohibited, there were difficulties about gathering in houses: continuous controls, complaints from civil servants. Now, instead, there is no problem”.
Around the parish of Medalla Milagrosa, very active in the social field, there are several prayer houses. Carmen, one of the catechists of the parish, takes us to where fifteen or so persons are gathered today. Crowding in the hallway, the little Madonna on a piece of furniture and, nearby, a lit candle, one by one those present, mostly women, state a prayer intention, which is followed by an Ave Maria. The intentions are always the same, whatever the regime or the latitude: the children, a forthcoming operation, the health of a sick husband are prayed for... Everything happens with open, indeed, wide open doors. So any one who wants can join in. As we come back, Carmen points to doors on which religious symbols are displayed, signifying the presence of a prayer house. All public. She tells us that the priests go to say mass in those houses, perhaps to celebrate an anniversary or for some other special occasion, they don’t need to ask permission of anybody. She recalls when at Christmas they attached a little picture of the Nativity on the door of every house. It is these small things, more than an outpouring of words, that enables one to see that the climate is somewhat more serene. As also the ostentatious presence, in Cuban houses, of religious images or calendars. That are also on proud display in the apartments of the Party men...
The prayer houses are spread throughout the island. In Camagüey also, the second Cuban city, there are several. Some are looked after by the Salesian nuns. They welcome us with courtesy to their Institute. They too, like the many other religious communities present on the island, engage in the apostolate and try to help the poor crowding the housing and streets of this country. They tell us that they go to give catechesis in an area outside the city where the peasants are so poor that they can’t travel around. “Without means, without shoes...”, the nuns say: “There is no house there big enough to accommodate us when we go to do catechesis; so we use a Party building”. An open shed, more or less, judging by their descriptions. It seems that a Party functionary was shocked by this. “He asked us why we gathered there. Then I told him that his predecessor who was a good person had authorized us...”. Thus, once again, it is human relations that overcome ideologies and barriers ...
A few steps away from the Salesian nuns is the church of Saint Juan de Dios, where the remains of the servant of God Father José Olallo Valdés repose. He was not a priest but only a religious of the Hospital Order of Saint John of God, who between 1820 and 1889 illuminated the island with charity. In November, if everything goes as planned, the Church will proclaim him Blessed. He will be the first Cuban saint, inasmuch as another native of the island declared martyr along with the many killed during the Spanish Civil War had always lived in Spain. “A beatification that fills us with healthy pride”, Monsignor García Rodríguez points out happily. “He is the saint of charity, of service to the sick”.
Beside the church where the saint rests, two of his confreres, in small confirmation that charity will never end, run a small hospital. Under the curious eyes of the patients, Fratel Ramón leads us through the small building, describes the treatment given, points out the medical equipment of excellent quality, fruit of donations from foreign countries, and shows us, with a flourish of pride, a shining new ambulance. A hospital managed by religious in a communist regime? Yes, he explains, but all in connection with the State structures.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone on a visit to Cuba lasting from 20 to 26 February 2008

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone on a visit to Cuba lasting from 20 to 26 February 2008

There are many religious Orders serving Cuba. Caritas also does its part. Ofelia Riverón, president of the Caritas of Havana, tells us of a project reaching approximately three hundred children, seven hundred old people and about fifty AIDS sufferers. She describes how the work is done, explains that what is needed comes above all from the donations from the local communities, from people who deprive themselves of the necessary so that someone may receive medicine or a package of provisions. She tells of the assistance given to the disabled, to children suffering from Down’s syndrome, to autistic children, thanks to collaboration with a group of non-Christian doctors (and here her eyes twinkle more than usual); she speaks of widespread poverty, above all after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and of the old, of whom there are many in Cuba thanks also to the efficient charitable services, relegated to the margins of family life, and who constitute a kind of social emergency. And of the collaboration that Caritas has established with several religious Orders scattered throughout Havana, in particular to help young unmarried mothers. A flood of initiatives that sometimes receives collaboration fom the State, but for the most part is done independently, thanks to areas of freedom that have been created in time.
Caritas represents only one of the many rivulets of work that the Cuban Church “carries out to help the neediest, with concrete works of service and care for men and women of whatever condition”: they are words of the Pope, written in the letter that the Vatican Secretary of State, Tarcisio Bertone, brought with him on his recent visit to the Caribbean island. A visit of six days (from 20 to 26 February), on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of John Paul II’s visit. And that coincided with the change of the Cuban regime. During the journey, the cardinal went to all the places formerly visited by John Paul II and, after that, met the new president. He came back with the impression of a positive political change and a “vital Church”. An affirmation, the latter, backed by factual data, if it is true that baptisms, confirmations and first communions are increasing every year in a breathtaking way.
But it is still too soon to know what will happen to the Church in the times of Raúl.
In his first speech, the new president confirmed that he wanted to put through a series of reforms: at the monetary, economic and political level. It is certain that what happens in the next few months in Cuba will be assesed very attentively in Western chancelleries. But also by that monumental statue of Jesus that has for a long time observed the affairs of this small Caribbean island. That statue that presents itself so beautifully at the mouth of Havana port. And that in all these years, more or less dark, the regime has been very careful not to demolish.


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