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Cuba's Church: Still evangelizing

Archbishop Wenski's column for June 2019 edition of the Florida Catholic

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Recently, I traveled to Havana with a small group of pilgrims to participate in various Church events celebrating the 500th anniversary of the founding of Cuba’s capital city. Traveling with religious (not tourist) visas, we were housed at the Casa Sacerdotal, a retreat-like facility operated by the Archdiocese of Havana.

During the short visit, we visited several parishes and participated in Masses in the historic cathedral, at Marian shrines, and with future priests at the nation’s seminary. We had the opportunity to see firsthand the work of Caritas (the Church’s social services arm) by visiting parish-based hot lunch programs for impoverished elderly, pre-school centers for children in marginal neighborhoods, and a nursing home for frail elderly run by religious sisters. (By the way, those lunch programs at parishes across the island nation are supported by the Miami-based Cuban Association of the Knights of Malta.)

We also attended an impressive performance at the cathedral of Brahms’ “A German Requiem,” with full chorus and orchestra made up of both Cuban and German singers and musicians.

Of course, with the “triumph of the revolution” in 1959 and the gradual revelation of its Marxist-Leninist premises, the Church suffered the expulsion of many priests and religious and the confiscation of its schools and charitable institutions. Many of its most active laity went into exile and those that remained, while “free” to attend Mass on Sunday, found that to do so resulted in discriminatory reprisals from the then officially “atheist” state. The communist state would not allow any public space to any institution outside of its control.

The communist party policy of actively discouraging religious practice was seemingly aimed more at creating apostates than martyrs: Many with little Christian formation or conviction simply abandoned the sacraments rather than be “blacklisted” and deprived of opportunities for professional advancement or employment for themselves or their children. Thus, by the end of the 1960s, lacking clergy and with shrinking numbers of faithful, the Church was forced into a defensive posture of “maintenance.”

However, the Holy Spirit never abandons God’s people. In mid-1980s, the Cuban bishops had the foresight and courage to convene the historic Encuentro Nacional Eclesial Cubano (ENEC). With ENEC, the Catholic Church in Cuba sought to move beyond mere “maintenance” to a posture of active “engagement” with Cuban society. The Church would reclaim its proper space, not as a political agent but as evangelizing leaven, in order to transform that society and its people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. ENEC made possible the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1998 — the first of three popes to visit Cuba.

St. John Paul II’s visit marks a “before” and an “after” in the history of the Catholic Church in Cuba. John Paul II’s sermons and messages during his visit remain a rich resource that continues to give direction to the Church's pastoral activity on the island. Twenty-one years later, the numbers who participate in the life of the Church have grown considerably. In fact, many, if not most, of Catholics on the island today could be considered new “converts” or “reverts.” Despite almost a half century of Marxist rule, John Paul II’s visit revealed that Cuba still had a “Christian soul.”

Yet, with just a few more than 300 priests (with only about half being native Cuban) in a country of 12 million people, the pastoral challenges of tending to this growing flock are not insignificant. And while the government has toned down its anti-religious rhetoric, there is still a long road before the Church enjoys the full freedom of action and the space it needs to serenely carry out its mission of evangelization.

The recent decision of the U.S. Administration to tighten travel restrictions and limit remittances to Cuba was made apparently to hold the Cuban government accountable for its bad behavior in Venezuela. Yet, these measures, like the continuing embargo, tend to be blunt rather than surgical instruments: i.e., they harm the innocent more than they hurt the guilty. It is not clear why doubling down on the decades-long policy of isolating Cuba will hasten rather than further slow down the needed changes on the Island.

Among the Cuban populace, there is no little uncertainty as to the future; and sometimes that uncertainty evokes fear. But amid that fear and uncertainly the Church is present — to preach reconciliation and to repeat the message of St. John Paul II: “Be not afraid to open the doors to Christ.” The Church in Cuba is a poor Church but like the Apostles Peter and John before the crippled man in Acts 3:6, the Cuban Church has no “gold or silver” to offer but only the name of Jesus Christ — and salvation is found in no other name.

Comments from readers

Juan Guerra - 07/01/2019 11:04 AM
Thank you, Archbishop, for your thoughtful and historic analysis of the Church in Cuba. Like many Cuban exiles, we prayed and wept at seeing our Holy Father, St. John Paul II visit our homeland and offer the words "do not be afraid", in his message of hope to the Cuban people. I share in the belief that the seeds then planted are continuing to take root in the hearts and souls of our fellow countrymen, and that a free and vibrantly Catholic Cuba emerge from the ashes of despair.

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