In early February, I traveled to Havana, Cuba, invited by the Cuban Catholic Church to attend a three day meeting of its Caritas network. Caritas, the social service arm of the Cuban Church – similar to our Catholic Charities – has only been allowed to function there since the early 1990’s. In 15 years, this organization, while still laboring under many limitations, has gained important if limited “space” within Cuban society. Through its various programs of social assistance, Caritas expresses the affective and effective solidarity of the Catholic Church with those in need and witnesses to the vitality of the Church in Cuba today.
That Caritas exists within an active and revitalized Catholic Church in Cuba is a testament to the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit never abandons God’s holy people. He granted the Bishops of that island nation the foresight and courage to convene the historic Encuentro Nacional Eclesial Cubano (ENEC). This meeting of priests, religious and laity from all the dioceses of Cuba was something like a national synod that followed a reflection process that had lasted five years.
With the “triumph of the revolution” in 1959 and the gradual revelation of its Marxist-Leninist premises, the Church suffered the expulsion of many priests and religious and the confiscation of its schools and charitable institutions. At the same time, many of its most active laity went into exile and those that remained while free to attend Mass on Sunday found that to do so often resulted in discriminatory reprisals from the then officially “atheist” state. The communist party policy of actively discouraging religious practice was aimed more at creating apostates than martyrs: many with little Christian formation or conviction simply abandoned the sacraments rather than be “blacklisted” and deprived of opportunities for professional advancement or employment for themselves or their children. The state did not allow public space to any institution outside of its control. Short of clergy and not able to participate freely in the life of society and in the face of a hostile state ideology, the Church had retreated to a defensive posture of “maintenance”.
However, with ENEC the Catholic Church in Cuba sought to move beyond this to a posture of active “engagement” with Cuban society in an effort to reclaim its proper space not as a political agent but as an evangelizing leaven in order to transform that society and its people with the gospel of Jesus Christ. 20 years later, the numbers who participate in the life of the Church has grown considerably. In fact today, the majority of Catholics on the island could be considered new “converts”. In spite of almost a half century of Marxist rule, Cuba still had a “Christian soul”.
The Pope’s visit nine years ago affirmed Cuban Catholics. The sermons and messages he pronounced during his visit remain as a rich resource that continues to give direction to the Church’s pastoral activity on the island. Yet, with just a few more than 300 priests (with only about half being native Cuban) in a country of 12 million people, the pastoral challenges of tending to this growing flock are not insignificant. And while the government has toned down its anti-religious rhetoric, there is still a long road before the Church enjoys the full freedom of action and the space she needs to serenely carry out her mission of evangelization.
Among the Cuban populace, there is no little uncertainty as to the future; and sometimes that uncertainty evokes fear, but in the midst of that fear and uncertainly the Church is present – to preach reconciliation and to repeat the message of John Paul II: “Be not afraid to open the doors to Christ”. Church in Cuba is a poor Church but like the Apostles Peter and John before the crippled man in Acts 3: 6, the Church has no “gold or silver” to offer but only the name of Jesus Christ – and salvation is found in no other name.