by Nick Mancino
Cuba has been in the news during the past several years, as relations with the United States have opened up more opportunities for travel there. Indeed, Cuba is at the top of the list for many travelers. Just 90 miles from the U.S., this Caribbean island country calls up images of white sand beaches, vintage cars from the 1950s, cigars and rum, music and dance. But to the Catholic traveler, it offers something more.
Cuba is a multi-racial society with a population of mainly Spanish and African origins. The largest organized religion is Roman Catholic. However, after the 1959 communist revolution, Catholics, and all religious people in Cuba, were excluded from the rights and privileges of the ruling party. Catholics suffered discrimination in schools and in the workplace. In 1962, Fidel Castro seized and shut down more than 400 Catholic schools. Church attendance plummeted. Church buildings were closed or turned into warehouses.
Thirty years later, however, the ruling government amended the constitution, characterizing the state as secular instead of atheist. Catholics could once again take part in the government. This change came about, in part, because of the fall of the Soviet Union, and in part through the efforts of Catholics around the world, including the three popes who visited Cuba in recent history: Pope John Paul in 1998, Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, and Pope Francis just last year in 2015. Each met with Fidel Castro, each made headway for reducing restrictions on Catholics in Cuba.
Eleven dioceses, including three archdioceses, make up Cuba’s Catholic Church. Out of 11.5 million Cubans, about 1.5 million are practicing Catholics. Today, the Church has taken on a role dealing with social and moral issues. The Church engages in discussions with the government on issues such as political prisoners and free market reforms. The Cuban Bishops Conference has praised reforms, such as allowing private businesses more freedom to travel and to buy personal property. Brooklyn Auxiliary Bishop Octavio Cisneros, who was born in Cuba, has been very involved with the Cuban Bishops Conference in helping them with these issues.
Many Cuban Catholics never lost their faith, even when they lost their churches. During the 30 years of prohibition against them, many Catholics gathered in homes for prayer and communion, drawing strength from the Bible’s recounting of how early Christians were persecuted for their faith. Today the churches are reopening and being converted back from warehouses to places of worship.
Some important stops for the Catholic visitor to Cuba include the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity and the Cathedral in Havana. Our Lady of Charity (also known as Our Lady of Cobre) is the national shrine of Cuba. Located in the mountains outside Santiago de Cuba, it traces its story back to the 1600s. Havana visitors have an opportunity to visit the Cathedral, known as San Cristóbal. Built in 1767 in the Baroque style in the center of Old Havana, the Cathedral contains some beautiful paintings and frescos.
Hotel space in Cuba is somewhat limited, and hotel prices can be expensive. The hotels are adequate, although very few have been upgraded during the past 50 years. Internet and credit card use are still in the development stages. Cruises are one possible option, as the ships tend to be modern and allow you to see more of the island. You only have to unpack once.
Whatever you choose, you will find the Cuban people to be warm and friendly. Many Cubans speak English and are more than happy to talk to you about their country and their lives. Yes, the Church is very much alive in Cuba, and now is the time to visit; now is the time to watch that fire grow from the small flames kindled in the hearts of the faithful for so many years. You can join Bishop Cisneros on a Lenten Pilgrimage to Cuba departing March 24.
Mancino is a representative of Regina Tours.
LENT IN CATHOLIC CUBA
March 24-31, 2017
El Cobre, Havana, Punta Frances, Cienfuegos – Celestyal Cruises
With Bishop Octavio Cisneros
Call: 1-800-CATHOLIC ext. 208