My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
As I prepared for my fourth trip to Cuba, I was asked by The Tablet Editor Ed Wilkinson to offer some reflections about a place of which I have many fond memories.
My origins are from the Archdiocese of Newark, as you know, where there is the second largest Cuban population in the U.S. outside of Miami. It is difficult to estimate the impact that the Cuban immigrants and refugees, especially the first waves, had on the Church of Newark.
I directed Newark’s Migration Office during which time the archdiocese welcomed the Mariel boatlift refugees in late April, 1980. Later, when serving as executive director of Migration and Refugee Services for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), I was instrumental in the release of longtime political prisoners from Castro’s jails. Truly, I have fond memories of these brave and embattled people.
My first trip to Cuba was basically to find an excuse to enter into Cuba. I was attached to a group of scholars who were presenting talks on migration at the University of Havana. With a newly minted Ph.D., I was able to give a talk on “Cuban Migration and the Catholic Church.” A delegation of U.S. bishops lead by then-Archbishop Bernard Law had visited Castro two years prior to my visit to ask for the release of these historic prisoners. Castro had promised that he would release them, yet nothing happened.
While there, I was able to contact the Cuban Bishops’ Conference, and through its contacts, I was able to see Fidel Castro and ask him to release the longtime political prisoners, many of whom had been in prison for 28 years. Some of these prisoners had been Castro’s former allies who were making a statement and telling the world that they were political prisoners and not normal prisoners. Many of these people would not don prison uniforms, but rather preferred to live in their pajamas.
The meetings with Castro began at midnight and took place two nights in a row. I made a plea that the American bishops, not the United States government, were willing to welcome the political prisoners to the United States. During those two meetings, I did not do much talking, but I did do a lot of listening. I heard how proud Castro was of the revolution and its aftermath. He even showed me the un-cashed rent checks from Guantánamo Bay that he kept neatly in his top desk drawer. Those two nights were truly memorable. It was Castro, his interpreter and I. Castro spoke much better English than he revealed. At our second meeting, he made the promise that he would release the political prisoners.
As a momento of our meetings, Castro autographed a copy of a book, in Spanish, titled “Fidel & Religion: Conversations with Frei Betto on Marxism and Liberation Theology,” which was a translation of his conferences with a Brazilian friar named Frei Betto.
My second trip to Cuba was a follow-up on Castro’s promise in an effort to arrange the release of these political prisoners. During this trip, I was able to visit the prisoners in their prison situation. These men and woman of conscience proved to me that they were truly unique. None expressed any bitterness regarding their situation, only hopefulness in a spirit of faith, which was truly admirable. Almost 1,000 of the Plantados were released during a period of 18 months.
In 1996, when I was named Auxiliary Bishop of Newark, a delegation of these Plantados came from Miami to my ordination with a very simple, yet poignant message inscribed on a plaque: “To the man that helped us out.” As you can see, these people had not even lost their sense of humor in all that time of imprisonment. I will never forget the small part I played in their release and how significant it certainly was to them.
My third trip to Cuba was on the occasion of Pope John Paul II’s visit. It was a quick visit, yet a historic one, as the pope came and overwhelmed the Cuban establishment with his charism and warmth. The Cuban government never imagined that his visit would bring out so many people. Unfortunately, immediately after the pope’s visit, for some strange reason, tighter restrictions were imposed on the functioning of the Church. Eventually, thank God and our Blessed Mother, under the title of Señora de la Caridad del Cobre (Our Lady of Charity of Cobre), the chill has warmed and now Cuba welcomes a second pontiff, Benedict XVI, to its shores.
Pope Benedict, like the good father he is, is visiting his child most in need. Any father or mother gives his or her attention to a child who is ill and needs special attention. Certainly, this is the situation in Cuba today as the Church continues to struggle to exist and to preach the Gospel. It is estimated that perhaps 60% of the Cuban people consider themselves Catholic and may, indeed, be baptized. The pope’s visit is on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the finding of the image of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre by fishermen in the midst of a storm. (More about the origins of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre on Page 6.)
After the visit of John Paul II, the Church in Cuba has continued to grow, restoring the shrine in Santiago and developing a new seminary outside of Havana. These are two great milestones for the Church in Cuba. The various dioceses continue to work with difficulty restoring faith and hope, and bringing the message of Jesus to a people in need of spiritual uplifting. During his trip, it is hoped that the Holy Father will announce the progress in the sainthood cause of Felix Varela, a Cuban priest who was instrumental in the struggle for Cuban independence, and eventually settled in the United States and worked here in New York City. Our own Auxiliary Bishop Octavio Cisneros is the postulator, or promoter, for Varela’s cause. Bishop Cisneros will represent the USCCB in Mexico, the first stop of Pope Benedict XVI’s trip, and then meet us in Cuba.
Every pilgrimage is an exercise of putting out into the deep. When we leave our homes with a spiritual purpose, we never know to what depth of faith the Lord can bring us. My trip to Cuba is a bit odd in its scheduling since it leaves at 6 a.m. from Miami and goes to Santiago, Cuba. From there, we travel at midnight for Havana where we will remain for the rest of the pilgrimage. All of this travel will be worth it in the end.
Pray with me to Our Lady of Charity of Cobre that this trip of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, will have a positive impact on the faith of the Cuban people and warm the heart of its government.