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from issue no. 02/03 - 2008

Interview with Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, Archbishop of San Cristóbal de La Habana

An opening that is growing

Interview with Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino by Davide Malacaria

Ten years have passed since the visit of Pope John Paul II to Cuba. The anniversary occurs at a time of transition for the Cuban regime. We ask Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, Archbishop of Havana since 1981 and cardinal since 1994 by wish of John Paul II to shed light on the hopes of the Catholic Church in this time of transition

Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, Archbishop 
of Havana

Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, Archbishop of Havana

Can the Cuban Church consider itself a living and fruitful Church?
JAIME LUCAS ORTEGA Y ALAMINO: The Church in Cuba is vital, but I don’t think that vitality excludes difficulties, indeed I hold that vitality and difficulties are, in some way, complementary because difficulties demand effort and stir us from lethargy. I think that the difficulties experienced for many years in Cuba by the Church led us to use our pastoral imagination. For example, a great difficulty for the Cuban Church was that of not being able to build churches in the new neighborhoods of the cities, in the rural areas and the new settlements; from that the necessity arose of using private dwellings and of creating small communities of twenty, thirty people or little more. These houses of prayer or mission, as they are commonly called, are centers of catechesis for the children, of catechumenate for the adults and the word of God is preached there. In many of them the sacramental life is also lived. In the Archdiocese of Havana there are more than five hundred. In these small communities the experience of the early Church is in some way revivified and the greatest problem is their pastoral care at the moment when they begin to have sacramental life. The priest can celebrate the Eucharist there once a month, but the community gathers every week around deacons, religious and especially lay workers trained for this mission. And furthermore: the difficulties have led us to integrate in very dynamic fashion the laity into the pastoral. So finally, the difficulties generate vitality in the Church, at least this is what has happened in our country. Religious practice in Cuba is very low. Only about three per cent of the population goes to Sunday mass, whereas there are more than 65 per cent baptized. When I began as archbishop, the baptisms were six thousand a year, today they are 25-26 thousand and among those baptized there are also adults. In many places, because of lack of churches and priests, it is difficult to celebrate the Sunday mass. But there are other indicators of the religiosity of our people. For example, in the cemetery of Havana there is a large chapel in which 75 per cent of all the funerals in the capital are celebrated. Cuban religiosity is very “Latin American”, popular, with great pilgrimages to the sanctuaries, the places of worship, where, in the peak periods of the year, such as Christmas and Easter, tens of thousands of people flock. For ten years now the 25th of December is a feastday, not a weekday anymore, and from this year the children enjoy long holidays in the Christmas period: from Christmas Eve to the Epiphany. This favors the recovery of the Christmas traditions and the coming together of the family. The number of vocations, even if slowly, is growing. We have a national seminary with sixty seminarians, in Havana, and a new center is being constructed outside the city.
The visit of John Paul II to Cuba: what is the importance of that gesture ten years afterwards?
ORTEGA Y ALAMINO: The visit of Pope John Paul II was a step forward rather than a gesture. The step of the Pope left furrows in the life of the Church and the hearts of Cubans, but also an imprint on our national history. The whole visit was meaningful: the Pope presented the image of the good shepherd who, bent by years and sickness, seemed to regather strength in every situation. For me the culminating moment was the visit to the sick of the leper-hospital of San Lazzaro, it was seeing how he touched them and bent down to them... For others, the mass in Revolution Square to which a million people came. That mass so imposing and so strongly felt gave to many a perhaps unknown image of the Cuban people and showed the Cubans themselves how the Church was present and alive.
During his visit John Paul II hoped that Cuba would open to the world and the world to Cuba. What has become of that hope?
ORTEGA Y ALAMINO: I don’t believe that the Pope was referring to the diplomatic relations of Cuba with other countries, because Cuba already had relations of that type, nor to others of a commercial or economic kind. To understand the Pope’s words one has to remember the period previous to his visit. A period similar to that undergone by the Polish Pope’s native land. For economic, ideological and commercial reasons Cuba was always very tied to the countries of the East and the Soviet Union. Many Cubans had studied there, the technicians and the foreign experts who came to work in Cuba came from there, Russian was one of the languages taught in the schools. Our island however is set in the heart of America and has a lot in common through culture, language and religion with Latin America. Our culture is European, Spanish in particular, even if it has been a great deal open to African influence also. Because of this we are part of the Western Christian world. John Paul II knew our culture. Hoping that Cuba opened to the world and the world to Cuba he was asking that our island be allowed to reinsert itself in that world to which it belonged culturally and that the world could help Cuba to achieve that. I believe this was the concept expressed by the Pope. I think that, after ten years, the opening to the Western world has come about, unfortunately also in its more deleterious aspects, that is secularism, hedonism and consumerism. The opening to this increasingly more globalized world involves benefits and risks, but it is as such that it is being manifested. The effects of the visit, if examined from the ecclesiastical point of view, were multiple. The Church was confirmed in its own mission and its pastors strengthened: the Cuban Church became known in the world for its vitality and its enthusiasm and the Pope made known the Church to the Cuban people themselves. It was the first time that Catholics had the opportunity of demonstrating in the streets: something new had its beginning and nothing will be able to return as it was before.
In the letter to the Chinese Catholics, Benedict XVI confirmed that the Church must not fight to change the regime, but to proclaim the Gospel.
ORTEGA Y ALAMINO: True. This is the formulation that the Cuban Church assumed in the confrontation of its faithful and the government. In Cuba there was the suspicion that the Church wanted to change or to destabilize power. This suspicion could have found fertile ground because of the close relations between the Communist Party and its counterparts in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but on our island there was never, as far as restrictions and control were concerned, a policy similar to that of Hungary, Poland or Czechoslovakia towards the Church. The Cuban government has always maintained diplomatic relations with the Holy See. In Cuba the Church has never had to submit, in the nomination of bishops or parish priests, to State approval, nor has there ever been a closed number set for seminarians and other. However the life of the Church has always gone on under the restrictive watch of the government, which feared political instrumentalization. The words of Benedict XVI reminded us of the past decades, when the Cuban Church and the Holy See strove, amid prejudices and suspicions, to present the Church just as the Pope did in the paragraph of the letter to the Chinese, that you previously quoted. This is the path of the Church always and everywhere, there cannot be any other and I say so now looking at what our recent past has been, given that today in Cuba things have changed.
In an interview in 30Days, years ago, you complained about the difficulty of obtaining approval for the entrance visas of religious, the small coverage in the media and the impossibility of being able to carry out the work of Catholic also at university level, and its members are called on as supervisors of the bachelor theses in Bioethics. As regards the official media, before that historic visit I had already made a first appearance on television. Then, after Pope Wojtyla became sick, the television came and asked me to speak about his state of health. On his death, at the end, the newspapers printed big front-page headlines that said: “A good shepherd is dead”. I read those articles as I was going into the conclave: it was moving. On television they also transmitted the mass that I celebrated in the Cathedral for the death of the Pope, which the president and all the government attended. The information services “covered” every moment of the agony and the death of John Paul II, as also the election of Benedict XVI. Currently there is much information about the Pope: every statement is transmitted on television and he is given wide coverage, which at times surprises us. And conditions look good for being given even more coverage. The Cuban bishops can speak on the provincial radio stations that are listened to a lot, in particular on the occasion of important religious feasts such as Christmas or the feast of the patron saint of Cuba, the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre. Now we are requesting the possibility of having a regular program. There remains however the knot of education, on which a lot of work still needs to be done to untie it. When they interview me I always repeat the same thing: the Church cannot renounce it. Even if, when we speak about Catholic education, our old people may only have a vague memory of the great colleges and institutions that the Church once had in Cuba, which, not enjoying State subsidies, survived thanks to the fees of the students. Because of this the Catholic schools have been accused of putting into effect an élitist education. But I think that today the Church has various possibilities for being present in education without having to return to past situations, that not even the Church wants.
The Revolution Square in Havana during the mass celebrated by John Paul II, 25 January 1998

The Revolution Square in Havana during the mass celebrated by John Paul II, 25 January 1998

The Cuban Church has condemned the embargo imposed on Cuba...
ORTEGA Y ALAMINO: The first condemnation of the embargo by the Episcopal Conference goes back to 1969. It is a constant of the Church to oppose itself to this as to any other embargo. We have seen in these days, for example, the crisis that the embargo has caused the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, where there begins to be a shortage of the means of subsistence that is hitting everyone. It has to do not only with the scarcity of foodstuffs, but also of the requirements for health care. And that happens here also. The North American bishops also have often made statements against the embargo afflicting our island. For us rejection of the embargo is a matter of principle. We hope that it stops. The Pope said so very clearly when he came in 1998. At the end of his visit, he spoke about “restrictive economic measures imposed from outside the country, unjust and ethically unacceptable”.
Cuba is living a time of transition. Your hopes?
ORTEGA Y ALAMINO: In our Christmas message we Cuban bishops spoke about this precisely: in this period expectations have been born in the population, there has been the possibility of discussion in the workplace, in the study centers, the social organizations; there was even an invitation on the part of the President Raúl Castro to a clear, open and sincere exchange of views. On another occasion I described all this as a process interesting in itself, because the possibility of discussing in this way is something new in Cuba. And promising. During the last elections, in the course of an interview, Raúl Castro said that the new Parliament has much work to do on issues relating to the transcendent, that must be faced calmly... To me it seems that all this is a harbinger of expectations and hopes. It would be much harder for people if such hopes were disregarded, but I don’t believe this will happen. There could be an impatience among us as far as the times of implementation are concerned, but I believe that something new is already being seen. The Church, during this year and a half in which Fidel Castro has left power because of illness, has not experienced in its activity any kind of change in the negative sense. On the contrary, there continues to be that spirit of openness born with the visit of Pope John Paul II and that has gone on gradually growing. How then the future will be, is not a matter for analysis...

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