With great sadness the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation has received news of the passing of His Eminence Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega Alamino, who dedicated his life with such care and humble concern to the service of the People of God on the island of Cuba.

ACN had the privilege of working for many years with Cardinal Ortega who, thanks to his great spirit of cooperation, contributed to the realisation of many important projects on behalf of the Church in Cuba and in the Archdiocese of Havana in particular.

Below we publish a tribute to Cardinal Ortega, written by Sergio-Lázaro Cabarrouy, a Cuban layman who has long been involved with the Church in his country and who knew the Cardinal since his own childhood.

“Mummy, can we talk to Monsignor Jaime and ask him to move the time of the Mass? I can never watch the cartoons on TV.” I can still recall the mischievous grin on my father’s face and the quick response from my mother: “Why don’t you ask him yourself?” That Sunday, the Bishop of Pinar del Río arrived a few minutes late for Holy Mass for the seven Catholics gathered together in San Diego de los Baños. “The water has risen in the dam, and we had to make a detour”, he explained, as he began the celebration.

After Mass, as usual, the little community gathered together with our Bishop and parish priest to chat a little and drink some juice, which Bishop Jaime always thought very sweet. On that day, without beating about the bush, I put my “reasonable” concern directly to him. In response, in a solemn voice and looking me directly in the eyes, he told me: “It is a good thing that you have to give up the TV cartoons in order to come to Mass. In fact you will have to give up much more important things than this in your life for the sake of Jesus Christ.”

I was thunderstruck, and for many months I kept going back over those words, and I wasn’t very convinced by them. However, life has since then proved to me overwhelmingly the truth of those words of this man of God, and I give thanks to Almighty God for having given me the light and the strength to freely give up those cartoons – since my father would never have forced me to go to Mass – because undoubtedly since then following Jesus Christ has involved much greater trials, and this was an early training for them.

 

I recall how the homilies of Bishop Jaime succeeded in overcoming the fears of many a San Diego resident – who found themselves first of all sitting in the park, looking towards the church, then at the church door, then in the last bench at the back, and then finally in the second or third row. I also recall how he endeavoured to engage in dialogue with the teachers and headmasters at my primary school, who were eager to get me to abandon my “obscurantist practices, relics of the past”.

Cuba: A shepherd to my people.

Cuba: A shepherd to my people.

The life of Cardinal Jaime Ortega was one of a caring shepherd who always took the path of dialogue with those of all faiths and none, and who attempted the difficult task of serving as a bridge. As he himself explained, a bridge is made of the same materials as a wall, but it serves to join both banks of the river, rather than being built up to separate people from one another. A bridge is built so that people can walk over it, unlike a wall, which towers above us. It is the only approach that could have enabled me, years after those “struggles” of the 1970s, to go up to that same school teacher, who was awaiting news of her own daughter in the same maternity ward as my own wife, and say to her, “I have been praying for your daughter and her baby” and have the joy of witnessing her reply: “Thank you so much! We needed that.”

One Cuban bishop told me how he had never seen his brother bishop, the Cardinal, more happy than when he was travelling with him to visit recently founded Catholic communities in remote places where the faith had previously been abandoned in his rural diocese. It was shortly before he retired as Archbishop of Havana. “He was as happy as a child!” And indeed he was a priest close to his people, a man of dialogue, a promoter of the unity of the Church and a fervent Cuban, committed to bringing the support of the Christian faith to society. In all this he made mistakes, in the view of some people, almost as great as his successes, but he never deviated from his course, like a navigator persevering in sailing out “into the deep” (Lk 5:4).

His courage enabled him to achieve things that were unthinkable at the time, such as launching publications and periodicals right at the beginning of the so-called “special period”, mediating in the sharp dispute between Cuba and the United States in order to re-establish diplomatic relations, and funding a centre for Higher Studies in order to bring continuity to the educational work begun by Padre Varela in the same building.

May the Lord, in his infinite mercy, receive the soul of this son of Matanzas, born in Jagüey Grande on 18 October 1936, the child of Adela and Arsenio, who responded to the call of God to the priesthood and to whom high responsibilities were entrusted. And who, knowing himself ultimately inadequate to the task, chose as his episcopal motto the phrase: “My grace is enough for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

ACN asks your prayers for the repose of the soul of His Eminence Cardinal Jaime Ortega. May the Lord grant him eternal rest, and may perpetual light shine upon him. Amen.

Cuban bishops take a critical view of the statements on religious freedom

In a referendum to be held this Sunday, the 24th of February, voters are being asked to decide on the draft for a new constitution for the republic that was passed by the National Assembly of Cuba in July. On several occasions, the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba (COCC) has criticised the absence of clear and unambiguous clauses recognising the right to religious freedom.

The COCC does acknowledge that the inclusion of the statement “the Cuban state is a secular state” in Article 15 is a sign that the “right of the individual to believe in those values that reflect his or her faith, to live them and to proclaim them” is considered important. However, they criticise that this “contradicts the contents of the preamble of the constitution, which includes a reference to the absoluteness of the Marxist-Leninist ideology”. This rules out “any other possibility for achieving complete personal fulfilment besides those offered by socialism and communism”.

The bishops noted that this statement jeopardizes the plurality recognised in Article 1 of the constitution, a right that is “supposed to be protected by the constitution”.

Bishops on the presbytery mounted on the Plaza de la Revolución, wainting for the beginning of the Holy Mass with Pope Francis.

Bishops on the presbytery mounted on the Plaza de la Revolución, wainting for the beginning of the Holy Mass with Pope Francis.

Furthermore the COCC expressed its concerns about the vagueness of the wording chosen for the definition of religious freedom in the constitution. In their statement, the bishops wrote, “The freedom to practice one’s chosen religion does not comprise only the freedom of having religious beliefs. It involves the individual’s freedom to live according to his or her personal beliefs and to proclaim these in public, always within the bounds of being respectful to others.”

In the concrete case of the Catholic church, they expressly pointed out the lack of “legal recognition of the church and its own identity and mission”, which they believe leads to the systematic exclusion of the church from “access to the media, the freedom of doctrine and evangelisation, the construction of buildings and the acquisition and ownership of the goods required to carry out its activities” as well as from the “freedom to form associations, not only for purely religious purposes, but also for education policy, cultural, health and charitable purposes.”

The referendum allows eleven million Cubans to either approve or reject the entire document. It is not possible to reject only a section of the document.

Guamà is a municipality in the southern Cuban province of Santiago de Cuba, and Guamà II is a suburb within the municipality. For some 18 years now a team of lay missionaries have been travelling, Sunday after Sunday, into the remote villages of this Guamà II pastoral district to bring the Gospel message of Christ to the people. Sitting in the back of a borrowed truck, they travel for hours on end in all weathers, sometimes up to 150 km (95 miles) on bumpy and dangerous coastal roads, overhung by rocky outcrops. There is no question of comfort, and they even bring their own food and bedding, since the people they are visiting are extremely poor.

 

Success Story: help for a popular mission in Guamà II, in southern Cuba

Success Story: help for a popular mission in Guamà II, in southern Cuba

 

This selfless commitment by these lay missionaries is a response to the acute shortage of priests in the region. Fundamentalist sects are spreading further and further and trying to woo away the Catholics from their faith. If the Church cannot be visibly present, it is often too late. And yet the people are very open to religious faith. Sister María Asunción Domínguez Castañeda, who belongs to the congregation on the Catechetical Sisters of Dolores Sopeña, and who runs the programme, writes: „The people are thirsting for God, and this is our way of coming to them as Church. Many people who have had never had any contact with the Church are now asking to receive the sacraments.“ A priest also accompanies these lay missionaries as often as possible, administering the sacraments to those who seek them.

The sisters‘ work includes training these lay missionaries in one-week intensive courses and additional monthly courses. Once they have completed their training, the missionaries act as community leaders, conducting Liturgies of the Word, helping distribute Holy Communion and giving catechetical instruction. They include people of all ages, and even several young people. „The Catholic faithful in the communities really appreciate the involvement of these young people“, Sister Maria Asunciòn remarks. „I believe that what we are able to do at this time for Cuba is really worth the effort“, she adds. ACN has provided 12,000 Euros for the support of this programme. Our heartfelt thanks to all who have contributed!

Both the Cuban people and the Catholic Church in the country are living through a time of change, and yet the lack of true reforms and the lack of resources together constitute one of the greatest challenges facing society. Such is the situation, as explained to the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation ACN International by Father Rolando Montes de Oca, a Cuban priest of the Archdiocese of Camaguey, who is currently living and studying in Rome. Aged 37, and belonging to the “Schönstatt” movement, he expresses his concern at the lack of a genuine religious opening in Cuba – consisting not merely of words but of deeds as well – in which families can freely choose the education of their children and the Church is allowed more places or centres in which it can demonstrate that “we are not a danger to Cuban society” but in fact quite the contrary.

The Castro era finally and definitively ended in April 2018. Fidel and Raul Castro have now been succeeded by Miguel Díaz-Canel as the country’s new president. How do the people see the new government?

I would say that it continues to be exactly the same as before. President Díaz-Canel himself has repeated on a number of occasions that his mission is to assure the continuity of the so-called “historical process”, or in other words the socialism initiated by Fidel Castro as the political, economic and social path to follow. Moreover, on his very first address as president, he stated that this continuity is the absolute priority of his government and insisted that it would still be Raul Castro who will take every fundamental decision for the country.

One of the first administrative actions of the new government was the promulgation of the new Constitution, which was endorsed by the Cuban parliament in July. The stated intention of the government was not only to open up to the market economy, but also to strengthen civil rights. How is the question of freedom of religion dealt with in the new Constitution?

There is freedom of worship, in the sense that people can meet together in churches to celebrate their faith. The articles already existing in the former constitution, which stipulate that the Cuban State “recognises, respects and guarantees religious freedom” and that “all individuals have the right to profess, or not profess, a religious creed”, have remained unchanged. However, it is important to understand what is meant by “religious freedom”. In my view it should not refer simply to freedom of worship. Nonetheless, these declarations regarding religious freedom might be seen as a point of reference, an ideal towards which we can advance through dialogue.

The tourists who come to Cuba see among other things churches full of people and an impressive participation in worship by the Catholic faithful. Is it possible to say that Christians can now freely live their faith? Would you say that the era of discrimination has come to an end?

Of course, things are not as they were in the time of the old Soviet Union. And even though the Internet is still not available to all the Cuban people, there are more and more people able to connect to the network, so that the modus operandi of the government is becoming more and more publicly visible, in the sense that it can cross national frontiers and is increasingly liable to generate notice in the international sphere. For its part, the Cuban system is very much concerned to project an image of democracy, of a Cuba that is fully free.

Nonetheless, although there is freedom of worship, I believe there is still a long way to go before we can arrive at true religious freedom. For example, Cuban families do not have the right to choose what kind of education they will give to their children, but are still forced to educate them under a Marxist atheist ideology. Despite claiming to offer a secular education, the philosophy that underlies it in regard to its analysis of history and reality is still very much an atheist and materialist one.

Does the Church also face restrictions in religious matters?

The pilgrim Church in Cuba is denied the right to its own space in the mass media. Except during papal visits and for an additional few minutes a year granted to the bishops on the local radio stations, there is no access to the media for the Church. Another major obstacle has been the ban on building churches and places of worship, despite the fact they allowed two or three churches to be built recently, after almost 60 years of petitions and dialogue.

There are also some very commonly occurring incidents that happen in the villages and towns, such as bans imposed on practical pastoral activities and sometimes against certain individual priests or certain specific works of charity on the part of the Church and so forth. These are disagreeable incidents, the origin of which is not clear – whether they are by order of government officials or by the independent decision of minor regional authorities.

And although, after so many years of religious repression, there is now some progress to be seen in regard to freedom of worship, the idea that seems to prevail in many people’s minds is that if they overstep their authority in acting against the Church, it will not cause them any problems, but if on the other hand they go too far in favouring religion, they may well have to face problems as a result.

 

“Whatever may happen, the Church in Cuba will not give up in the face of the difficulties”

 

And how is the Church to overcome these restrictions?

Although the Church in Cuba faces many difficulties, she will never yield. We are denied regular access to the mass media, yet we do not cease to convey the Gospel message. In the dioceses the bishops are producing magazines and newsletters which, in addition to speaking about faith, aim to enlighten the ordinary lives of the Cuban people. Although we don’t have access to education, because as I have already mentioned, it is practically entirely atheist, we do have our own formation centres where we can convey true Christian and civic values. It is extremely difficult to build churches, but in many small towns and villages that do not have them, there is still the Christian community, living, celebrating and bearing witness to faith in the private homes of those who open their doors to us so that we can celebrate the Eucharist and offer a Christian formation.

What is the role of the Church in Cuba?

We strive as a Church to engage in dialogue and show that we are not a danger to Cuban society. And still more than this, the Church has a great deal to offer and has the right to be allowed to have certain spaces in which it can better carry out this service. The aim is not to oppose each other but to help become united, by respecting the diversity of ideas, and so that one day it may be possible to arrive at a Cuba “of all and for the good of all”, without excluding anyone.

And what is the biggest challenge facing you?

In my view, the problem that most affects the Cuban Church at the present time has to do with her mission as a mediator in the process of national reconciliation, which is something we regard as necessary today. The Cuban people are divided, and the Church in Cuba is striving to find space for everyone and constantly calling on people to dialogue. Tragically, ever since the beginning of the “conflict”, there has not been any openness to dialogue, either on the part of the official government positions or on the part of the most radical opposition. As a result the Church is sometimes accused of being “communist” and at other times accused of allowing herself to be manipulated by the opposition or by US political interests. Both charges are false; the Church in Cuba is simply not being properly listened to. While the Communist Party demands our silence in the face of the grave and continuing social problems, as the price of good relations between the Church and the state, the other side often interprets the mission of the Church as a militant political posture, which excludes and condemns any relationship with the government, in absolute terms. Whereas the position of the Church in Cuba is not as an absolute belligerent in either sense. The Church is a mother, she is not the enemy of anyone. The Church is the Spouse of Christ, and she will not become wedded to any earthly powers, however difficult this may be for many to understand.

 

Cuba - Diocese of Holguín

Cuba – Diocese of Holguín

How do you see the future of the Church in Cuba, and how can the charitable agencies such as the foundation ACN International help her in her needs?

It is very hard to imagine the future of Cuba. We dream of a future of peace, built through dialogue, justice and forgiveness. But whatever may happen, the Church in Cuba will not give up in the face of the difficulties. She has learnt to open windows when the doors were closed. The Church in Cuba is a community of hope which strives to transmit this hope to a society that is very much in need.

The problems facing the Church in Cuba are the problems faced by all the Cuban people. One of the most serious among them is the lack of financial resources. ACN has been very much involved in the evangelising activity of the parishes and has supported the formation of new priests in so many different ways, while also helping our mission through the publication of Bibles, catechisms, prayer books and teaching materials and funding the purchase of vehicles to enable the missionaries to travel and reach their communities. You have helped us to rebuild our churches when they were damaged by natural disasters, and in so many other ways besides. The enormous aid given by ACN to the Cuban Church has borne, continues to bear and will bear fruit in the future as well. Many of these fruits can indeed already be seen on a simple visit to the country. It is as though God is acting through the action of ACN, sometimes in ways that are unseen but which continue in the background and exercise their influence through conversions, the diffusion of Christian values and more humane attitudes, etc.

You yourself have known the work of ACN ever since your childhood, have you not?

I remember with great gratitude that day when I was still little boy and when our parish priest and catechist arrived, overjoyed, and bringing with them the Child’s Bible produced by ACN. I was only little then and I wanted to have good book about the faith, explained in the language of children. I read the whole book and I fell in love with God through the pages of this Bible. I still keep it in my home to this day. And since then I have used it many times for the religious instruction of children. Yes, the ACN Child’s Bible is something closely linked to the roots of my personal experience of God.

 

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT Aid to the Church in Need, VISIT http://www.churchinneed.org
logoacnwhy2

ABOUT US

Founded in 1947 as a Catholic aid organization for war refugees and recognized as a papal foundation since 2011, ACN is dedicated to the service of Christians around the world, through information, prayer and action, wherever they are persecuted or oppressed or suffering material need. ACN supports every year an average of 5000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding.