New archbishop may transform Cuban church with modest style
By ASSOCIATED PRESS
PUBLISHED: 04:14 GMT, 27 June 2016 | UPDATED: 04:15 GMT, 27 June 2016
JARUCO, Cuba (AP) — In the mid-1970s, a recently ordained priest trekked
the Cuban countryside, defying the communist government by distributing
hand-printed religious pamphlets to townspeople bold enough to open
At the height of Cuba's anti-religious sentiment, the man known as
Father Juanito was tolerated thanks to his soft-spoken manner and
unbending will, say those who followed his rise. His admirers say that
personality served him well when he became bishop of the eastern city of
Camaguey and launched an intensive outreach to the poor, arranging aid
for needy pregnant women and diverting religious processions off main
streets into the humblest neighborhoods.
"He's an inexhaustible worker, and not in comfortable locations, but in
difficult and tricky ones," said Maribel Moreno, secretary and archivist
for Camaguey's archdiocese for two decades.
In more than a dozen interviews, those who know Juan de la Caridad
Garcia said they expect him to transform the Cuban Catholic Church in
his new post as archbishop of Havana, which he assumed late last month.
After three decades under Cardinal Jaime Ortega, a skilled diplomat
comfortable in the halls of power, Cuba's most important
non-governmental institution is being led by a man focused on rebuilding
the church's relationship with ordinary Cubans.
Ortega built warmer church relations with the Cuban government, winning
important freedoms for the church. He even helped negotiate U.S.-Cuban
detente, carrying a secret papal message from Havana to Washington. The
cardinal attended diplomatic receptions in Havana and cultural galas
with high-ranking government officials. He gave television interviews to
Cuban and international stations and spoke at major universities overseas.
When Pope Francis appointed Garcia to head the Archdiocese of Havana in
April, the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops highlighted Garcia's
"simplicity of life, apostolic dedication, prayer and a life of virtue."
"The overwhelming effort and the mood will be eminently pastoral, even
though diplomatic and political matters must be tended to," said the
Rev. Ignacio Zaldumbide, a friend since they were university and
Garcia's pastoral focus was on display one recent Sunday when he left
Havana's grand cathedral to celebrate Mass at the St. John the Baptist
church in the small town of Jaruco, in central Mayabeque province. He
handed out sweets to children and joked with congregants about how some
town residents focused more on drinking than religion and attended
church once every 40 years.
"Obviously there are many things to work on, many places to spread the
word, but I'm not going to start from zero. The previous bishops and
Cardinal Jaime Ortega have done a lot," Garcia told The Associated Press
after Mass. "The church lives the Gospel, announces the Gospel and
denounces what's wrong in order for progress to be made."
His predecessor has been criticized by dissidents and anti-Castro
Cuban-Americans for praising achievements of the Cuban revolution and
maintaining a non-confrontational relationship with the government, even
as he helped negotiate the release of prisoners including those held on
political charges. In retirement, Ortega will live in a former seminary
in Old Havana, where some church observers believe he will serve for
some time as the church's main emissary to the Cuban government as
Garcia tends to his flock.
However the responsibilities are divided, Garcia said he doesn't intend
to change the church's approach to the government.
"I think the cardinal did a lot of good," Garcia said. "There's a
slightly negative image of him in some places and that's false. I am
going to continue what he did."
Garcia said he shares the government's stated vision of gradual reform
in Cuba, which is slowly opening its economy to private enterprise and
granting Cubans a limited number of new personal freedoms within a
single-party system criticized as the last undemocratic government in
The church doesn't want "capitalism or anything of the sort, rather that
socialism progresses in a just, equal and brotherly society," the new
Born on June 11, 1948, in Camaguey, Garcia was the first of six children
of an observant Catholic railroad administrator and a homemaker.
Resisting the atheist ideology of Cuba's 1959 socialist revolution, he
entered seminary and was ordained a priest in 1972, becoming part of a
persecuted minority. At that time, Communist Party member broadcast
propaganda on speakers placed in the doors of churches, and the
government frequently confiscated church property.
In the late 1960s, Garcia's bureaucrat father died of a heart attack in
prison after he was held on charges related to the mismanagement of the
state railroad system where he worked, Zaldumbide said.
Garcia showed little bitterness after his father's death, and no fear of
resisting the government's repression of Catholicism, say those who know
"People stayed in the church despite grand difficulties at the start of
the revolution. One can move forward, talking and looking toward the
future," Garcia said. "One doesn't have to live in the past."
Moreno remembered Garcia rising at dawn to pray and personally deliver
invitations for children to march in religious processions. He assembled
lists of pregnant women to receive help and once lent his towel, a rare
commodity, to church volunteers bathing an alcoholic man.
Garcia frequently took a beat-up jeep to distribute pamphlets and lead
services in far-flung villages, "when we could only dream of missionary
work in Cuba, because we had to be careful leaving the walls of the
church," Zaldumbide said.
Named auxiliary bishop of Camaguey in 1997 and archbishop of the diocese
in 2002, Garcia negotiated closely with local communist functionaries
over expanding the church's social outreach, said Miguel Angel Ortiz,
director of the Catholic charity Caritas in the city.
"We always talked about a path of sowing confidence with the
government," Ortiz said. "We tried to not let the past weigh on our
Associated Press writer Michael Weissenstein in Havana contributed to
Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/ARrodriguezAP
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