The Church in Cuba

The Church in Cuba:
Is a New Day Dawning?
By Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

The downing of two airplanes near Cuba in the early 1990’s, piloted by Cuban refugees out of Miami, has thrust Cuban-American tensions into the news again. The screaming headlines may have obscured the amazing happenings taking place in Cuba’s Catholic Church and the efforts of U.S. Catholic Relief Services to bring humanitarian aid.

PHOTO (C) 1996 JACK WINTZ, O.F.M
(Above) The early morning sun glows off Havana’s majestic
seafront promenade, the Malecon.

One quiet Sunday morning, September 14, 1993, the Catholic community of Cuba was taken by surprise. Without prior announcement or advance warning, the Catholic bishops of this Caribbean nation directed that a pastoral message be read in all Catholic churches throughout the land.

Cuba’s Catholics were not the only ones surprised. The bishops’ statement sent shock waves across the entire island. Besides being read from pulpits, copies of the letter were available for wide distribution. They quickly got into the hands of the general population, including Communist party leaders and the international press.
A Beacon of Hope

The bishops’ message signaled the dawn of a new day in Cuba. The document, entitled “Love Hopes All Things,” was a politely worded yet bold challenge addressed to all sectors of Cuban society. It was a call to charity and to a national dialogue–to a real sharing of power for all citizens. Such an invitation from Church leaders might sound routine or even harmless in most of the world’s democratic societies.

But in a country whose one-party Communist government has been the sole voice of the nation and controller of its destiny, a call to open dialogue came across like the first tremors of an earthquake. All of a sudden, from one coast to the other, Cuba was engaged in a frenzy of discussion stirred up by the frank and liberating statements of 11 Cuban bishops–statements like:

“We must recognize that in Cuba there are different points of view on the situation of the country and on possible solutions, and that dialogue is already taking place in a low voice in the street, in the workplaces and in homes….
“All of us may have fragments of the truth but no one may claim to have the whole truth….

“In Cuba there is only one party, one press, one radio and one television. But the dialogue we are talking about must take into account the diversity of means and people….”
All Cubans, the bishops suggested, “have to raise serious questions” like: “Why are there so many Cubans who want to leave and who do leave their country?…Why do professional people, workers, artists, priests, athletes, military people, activists or anonymous and simple people take advantage of any temporary departure from the country, whether for personal or official reasons, and remain abroad?”

The bishops, moreover, indicated that “certain bothersome political practices should be eliminated.” Among these were “the closed and omnipresent quality of the official ideology,” “excessive surveillance by the state security,” “discrimination on the basis of philosophical or political ideas or religious belief” and the holding of citizens in prison “for economic or political reasons.”

How did the bishops’ letter go over in Cuba? I asked Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, during an interview last December at his residence in Old Havana. “I believe the letter had a great reception by the people here in Cuba in general,” he replied, “but not so by the Cuban government!…We speak clearly about the role of the Catholic Church in Cuba, but there is always a suspicion on the part of the government about the Church in this country. There are times when this suspicion grows and now is one of those times.”

What does Cardinal Ortega want for Cuba? “I would like to see a dialogue started whereby all segments of the country can help the country find its way into the future. My desire is for wider participation, dialogue and freedom here in this society.”

The 59-year-old cardinal strikes those who meet him as being full of youthful enthusiasm. His eyes seem to dance with joy and with the inner assurance that God’s Spirit is with all who struggle for the truth–and that history is in his favor. Known as a man whose love and cordial spirit cross all barriers, he seems clearly attuned to the bishops’ statement which describes itself as an “appeal for love” and which holds up the ideal of charity to the whole Cuban people–including the Cuban government!

This was one of the most fascinating and creative twists of the bishops’ pastoral. It issued a gentle yet clear call to the government itself to be more loving and generous: “When our nation’s official spokespersons have said that the revolution is magnanimous, we rejoice that such a notion stands on the horizon of our country’s leaders, for thus it is possible to encourage the hope that the thought and language guiding the life of our people may become more welcoming. Hatred is not a constructive force. In struggles between love and hatred, the loser is always hatred….

“We would all like…to see love reigning among all Cuba’s children,” the bishops continue, “a love that might heal so many wounds opened by hatred, a love drawing all Cubans together into a single family embrace, a love that would offer to all the moment for forgiveness, amnesty and mercy….”

In their appeal for love, the bishops used several quotes from José Marti (1853-1895), the great Cuban poet and leader of the Cuban struggle for independence: “The only law for authority is love,” “Sad would be the fatherland that had hatred for support” and “Love is the most excellent law.”

Seeing bold comments such as these disseminated all over the island, Cubans suddenly realized that a new dawn of self-confidence and courage was arising in the Cuban Church.