Cubans Turn to the Church for Answers

By Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

Perhaps the greatest sign of the revitalization of the Catholic Church is the growing number of people, including young people, who are coming back to the Church in recent years. The churches are once again crowded for Sunday and feast day Masses. Candidates for Baptism are numerous.

The reason for this, I was told repeatedly by Church leaders and young people alike, was that many people, especially the youth, have grown tired and skeptical of the worn-out Marxist rhetoric of the revolutionary leaders. They are finding, instead, a new authenticity in the Cuban Church, as well as a spiritual and ethical message–a message that corresponds to the deeper values they seek and which will more likely fill the great hunger in their hearts.

More and more people, both inside and outside the Church, are looking to the Church as a credible voice in finding solutions to the nation’s problems. They are encouraged in seeing the Church take a stand on social matters.

Cardinal Ortega admits that there are some who believe that the renewed interest in the Church has arisen in part because of the deteriorating political and economic situation in Cuba after the collapse of Communism in the Soviet bloc. The poor are suffering hunger and deprivation. Basic items like soap and toothpaste are scarce. Rotating power blackouts are common.

“I believe these factors have some importance,” the cardinal told St. Anthony Messenger and visitors from Catholic Relief Services. “But it seems to me that, over all, the resurgence of interest in the Church is the result of an existential hunger, emptiness in the heart, a lack of feeling for life. People experience a desire for God and are searching for solid, eternal values–for values that transcend the economic and political factors.

“The new attention given the Church is most notable among the youth,” affirms the cardinal. “But there are also many middle-aged citizens who are returning to the Church after 20 or 30 years of absence. In Havana, in 1994, there were some 32,000 Baptisms. Two thousand of these were adults or young adults who took part in RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) programs.”

According to the estimate of one lay Catholic leader, the figure for adult Baptisms 10 years ago, by way of contrast, would have been “something like 250.” At that time, he said, those with spiritual yearnings were hesitant or afraid to profess their faith publicly because of discrimination and hostility toward the Church from the government.

“Catholics are not afraid anymore,” the cardinal added. “The images of the Sacred Heart and of the Virgin of Charity are once again being placed in living rooms–and no longer hidden away in grandmother’s room,” he said, laughing.

These two images had been familiar fixtures in Cuban Catholic homes until official discrimination toward religion prompted many families to move them to the back of the house or face them toward the wall. “Who does not recall,” the bishops had asked in their pastoral letter, “that traditional popular image of the Sacred Heart or that engraving of the Virgin of Charity occupying the place of honor in the Cuban family’s living room?”

That these religious images are returning to prominent locations in the home is a clear sign of the Catholic revival.