Friday, August 19, 2016

The growth and challenges of the Church in Cuba

The growth and challenges of the Church in Cuba

To understand the Church's current situation in Cuba, one needs to look
at the early days of the revolution.

"I remember that time," recalls Laura Perez. Speaking in her native
Spanish from her apartment in West New York, N.J., the 79-year-old
reminisced about her days in Cuba, "What we didn't know then actually
did come back to hurt us."

Beginning in 1961, Castro created the People's Socialist Party. Four
years later, it would be renamed to the Communist Party of Cuba.

Those who opposed Castro were silenced -- imprisoned, executed, or
deported. Among those deported were close to 200 priests, mostly
Spaniards ministering to the Cuban population, who had been critical of
Castro's regime. By 1962, it became illegal to be Catholic and a member
of the new regime.

Perez recalls the chilling effect Castro's regime had on Catholics.

She and her nine siblings were raised Catholic in a rural village called
Manicaragua where there was no church.

Perez and her family moved to Havana when she was 13. "That was the
first time I was able to go to Mass every week," she says. "I did my
First Communion at the Church of San Francisco. It was such a beautiful

"Fidel took that, broke all the statues and turned it into a museum,"
she adds bitterly.

Perez says she first felt singled out because of her faith in 1969. But
then a married woman with a young son, her family still attended weekly
Mass. At their church, soldiers entered, destroyed all the religious
statues and burned all the sacred books.

At her son's school the administration singled him out and "made him
announce that he was Catholic from a Catholic family," she says.

Perhaps the most terrifying moment -- one that instilled in Perez the
desire to leave her homeland -- came one Sunday as the family was
leaving Mass. Perez explains that her husband was a professor who
continued to practice his faith although it was strongly discouraged by
the administration. As the family was walking out of Church, one of his
students was marching with a group of young soldiers.

"Angel, my husband, just froze," she says. "Then the boy walked up to
him and whispered, 'Don't worry professor, I'm one of you.' We realized
we couldn't keep living in fear like that."

According to Mario Paredes, presidential liaison to Catholic Ministries
for the American Bible Society, the Cuban government also began
"altering the calendar of the country." Christmas was banned. Easter was
removed from the calendar.

"On Sundays, the government would create all sorts of activities to
dissuade people from going to church." he explains.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, "the Church in Cuba was essentially
closed," Paredes says, adding that the Papal Nuncio tried to establish
relations with the Archdiocese of Havana, but the Castro regime blocked
all communication.

"The country was reduced to a small number of priests -- all Cuban born
-- that had to minister to the entire island," he continues. Archdiocese
of Havana only recorded 7,000 baptisms. In a country that was once
almost entirely Catholic, the Church was in trouble.

According to Cardinal O'Malley, when he first travelled to Cuba in 1980,
he estimates that less than 1 percent of the population were practicing

Things began to change in 1981 when a new archbishop was appointed in
Havana. Then-Archbishop Jaime Ortega "was a real turning point,"
according to Paredes.

"With his charisma, and his willingness to speak to the outside world,
we began to see what was going on in the Church in Cuba," Paredes adds.

In 1986, with the help of Cardinal Ortega, Cardinal Terence Cook,
then-archbishop of New York travelled to Havana and met with Castro. At
the time, Mario Paredes was director of operations for the United States
Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), so he traveled with Cardinal
Cook to that meeting in Havana.

"In that encounter, a lot of things were said," Paredes recalls.

Ultimately, Cardinal Cook was able to negotiate the release of over 800
political prisoners. He also was granted permission for priests to visit
prisoners in jail. And, perhaps most importantly, he opened the way for
Havana to host Pope John Paul II.

By the 1990s, it was no longer illegal to be Catholic and a member of
the Communist party. Castro, who had often described Cuba as an "atheist
nation," now began referring to it as a "secular nation." In 1991, the
Archdiocese of Havana reported 33,569 baptisms -- a six-fold increase
from the 1971 statistic.

It seemed things were looking up for the Church in Cuba.

Then history stopped all progress in its tracks. The Soviet Union
collapsed. The Berlin Wall was toppled. Communist regimes lost its power
in most of Europe.

"Fidel was very upset," Paredes recalls. "He accused bishops of
conspiring against his power. There was a complete breakdown of

It wasn't until 1998 that Pope John Paul II would be allowed to enter
the island nation.

Calling it a "watershed moment," Cardinal O'Malley believes "that visit
saved the Church in Cuba."

"It really changed the landscape," he says.

That following year, Christmas was allowed to be celebrated once again.

Things would continue to change. In 2008, an aging Fidel Castro stepped
down as president of Cuba, ceding his power to his younger brother, Raul.

"Fidel was very dogmatic," Paredes explains. "Raul is very pragmatic."

Seeing his nation in financial distress, and acknowledging the needs of
the Cuban people, Raul Castro began to allow groups such as Caritas
Cubana to minister to the Cuban people.

"Raul has been very interested in forming a relationship with the
Catholic Church," Paredes says, adding quickly that "it is not an
official relationship. He looks to the other side and allows Caritas to
establish centers of continuing education, centers for children with
disabilities and other such entities to exist."

"Private entities do not exist in Cuba, yet the Church is allowed to run
these without any problem," he adds.

In 2010, a new seminary was erected in Cuba -- the first Catholic
building constructed since the Revolution in 1959 -- with President Raul
Castro in attendance at the inauguration ceremony.

Two years later, another pontiff visited the island. Pope Benedict XVI
arrived amid throngs of people, waving papal flags, publicly declaring
their faith.

Like his predecessor, Pope Benedict celebrated Mass at Revolution
Square. He also visited Santiago de Cuba, the place where the statue of
the patroness of Cuba, Our Lady of Charity, resides.

Following Pope Benedict's visit, the Cuban people were allowed to
celebrate Holy Week -- even having Good Friday declared a national day
off from work.

According to Paredes, following Pope Benedict's visit to Cuba, "the
Church began to be seen not as a counter-revolutionary or anti-patriotic
entity, but as an asset."

Although the Church has certainly grown in Cuba -- now more than 60
percent of the population are baptized Catholics -- there is still much
work to be done, according to Paredes.

"Each pope has helped to make the revolution more flexible, more
tolerant," he says, adding that there are still many things to be done.

"The Church is still not allowed to enter the field of education -- no
high school, or elementary or university," he says. "They also have no
access to mass media of any kind."

Yet incredible progress has been made. In the last few years, the
government has begun to give the Church properties that were confiscated
a half-century ago. To date, more than 120 buildings, most in disrepair,
have been given back to the dioceses of Cuba.

And now, after Pope Francis' visit to Cuba in September 2015, Cubans are
highly optimistic about their future.

Sitting in Old Havana, Vivian, a 43-year-old tour guide in Havana, who
was not comfortable giving her last name, sees Pope Francis's visit as a
real "turning point" for Cuba.

The fear they once lived in has been lifted. The paranoia that had been
instilled in the people has dissipated. Continuing education in fields
such as business, computers and finance are being offered in many
parishes. The oppression once felt by the masses has been changed into

"We can feel it in the air -- there's a hope, an electricity. You can
see it when you look at people. We are hopeful. We know that things are
going to get better," Vivian said.

Source: The growth and challenges of the Church in Cuba. Published
8/19/2016. Local. -

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