Cuba Gets a New Cardinal

By Jack Wintz, O.F.M.
A second major event signaling the rebirth of the Cuban Catholic community was Pope John Paul II’s decision in October 1994 to make Archbishop Ortega a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. This was the first time since the Revolution of 1959 that a Cuban prelate was appointed cardinal.

Thanks to several years of patient efforts and quiet diplomacy on the part of the Vatican, the relationship between the Cuban government and the Church had been improving, especially since 1990. In 1992, for example, the constitution was amended making it illegal to discriminate against Christians in Cuban society.
In this more cordial climate, Fidel Castro allowed 250 Cubans to travel to Rome to attend the ceremony in which the pope elevated Archbishop Ortega to the College of Cardinals, November 26, 1994.

On December 11, 1994, after Cardinal Ortega’s return from Rome, there was an exuberant celebration at the cathedral in Havana. As The New York Times described the event, “So many of the faithful turned up that they spilled out of the main cathedral and into the surrounding square, where they cheered and waved Cuban and Vatican flags. Inside, jubilant worshipers hoisted banners that proclaimed ‘Cuba has a Cardinal!’ and shouted ‘Long live the Church.'”

Though Cardinal Ortega’s appointment received little notice in the government-controlled press, he is highly esteemed by the Catholic community in Cuba. “I think Cardinal Ortega could be a future pope,” asserted Brother Manuel Colliga to a small group of Americans visiting Cuba last December. Brother Manuel is the Spanish-born superior of the Hospital Brothers of San Juan de Dios who serve at San Rafael’s Home for the Elderly in Havana. He also praised the cardinal for his “posture of love and for seeking the welfare of all Cubans.”

When Cardinal Ortega visited the Cuban community in Miami last May 26-28, he received a tumultuous welcome. Resolutely refusing their calls to criticize Cuban President Fidel Castro, he asked his fellow Cubans to put aside “old quarrels, their sad and painful memories” and practice Christ’s forgiving love. Then on June 15, the cardinal, who is president of the Cuban Bishops’ Conference, addressed all the U.S. bishops at their semiannual meeting in Chicago, receiving a standing ovation before and after his address.

It is clear that both Cardinal Ortega and the American bishops want to work for improved relations between their two countries. The cardinal clearly wants to express his esteem for the Catholic community in the United States. During his interview with St. Anthony Messenger in December, he expressed his desire to “send a message of gratitude and brotherhood to the U.S. Church. It is a wonderful experience,” he added, “to collaborate with Christians even when our governments seem to be separated.”