An interview with Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana
By Ellie Hidalgo
Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino of Havana, Cuba, recently visited Los Angeles for the first time. He spoke with the U.S. bishops at their annual spring meeting in Los Angeles in a closed session June 16. Afterwards he talked with The Tidings and Vida Nueva. The interview, excerpted here, is translated from Spanish.
Cardinal Ortega, who was installed as Havana's archbishop in 1981 and elevated to cardinal in 1994, heads Caritas Cuba, the Catholic humanitarian aid agency. The cardinal has also sought to increase religious liberties among the Caribbean country's 11 million people living under the communist government of Fidel Castro.
The U.S. trade embargo against Cuba also has been tightened in recent years, meaning that Cubans living in the U.S. can only visit close family members on the island once every three years. The cardinal shared his views with The Tidings and Vida Nueva. The full interview can be found at www.the-tidings.com.
What was the message you gave to the U.S. bishops when you met with them?
First, I thanked them for the invitation and for the collaboration which the U.S. bishops' conference has with the church in Cuba. It's a collaboration of many years. My message was that, despite the difficulties in communication between the two countries, that we don't let it diminish our flow of communication. It's always necessary that the church doesn't remain isolated or without possibilities to communicate with the church in North America. That was my principal message.
There's also a lot of desire among the U.S. bishops to maintain our communication and our collaboration. I have noted how they have helped during natural catastrophes sustained in Cuba like hurricanes Michelle and Dennis and Charley. It's been one after the other. There have been other development projects as well in which they have helped. The help given to Caritas in Cuba has been very positive. We need to grow the potential of all of this and maintain it, despite any difficulties.
I also talked about the difficulties Cubans living in the U.S. have to travel and visit their family. Now it's only every three years. Sometimes people have situations -- especially with older family members who expect their relatives to visit them sooner. What could we do about this? What could be possible to improve this situation? I don't think it will be easy, but there could be some kind of humanitarian solution.
What is the situation of the youth in Cuba? What role is the Cuban church trying to play with the youth?
In the church there is always a youthful presence - not extraordinary - but there are very interested youth, very desiring of a Christian formation. Every year around Easter we baptize many adults. The majority are younger than 35 years old. In the Archdiocese of Havana we baptize around 1,000 to 1,200 people each year, mostly youth. This is after a year or more of catechetical preparation. These are new members who arrive at the church because of an aware decision and a desire to grow in the Christian life. It's striking the interest in intellectual and spiritual formation of the laity in Cuba, including the youth. We have a religious institute in Havana named Father Felix Varela, and there are more than 300 lay persons studying philosophy, the history of the church, doctrine, theology.
In the U.S. there is great concern about vocations to the priesthood. How are the vocations in Cuba?
There's a sustainable increase in vocations. It's not spectacular. This next year we will have more than 80 seminarians in the seminary of Havana. It's the national seminary. There are other seminaries for those just starting. There's one in Santiago de Cuba that has about 15 men. There's a pre-seminary in Camaguey that has maybe 12 men and there are others studying outside of Cuba. Together there are more than 100 young adults preparing themselves for the priesthood. If you look at years back when I started as archbishop of Havana, about 20 years ago, there was a time when the seminary had only 20 men. The visit of Pope John Paul II [in 1998] had a great impact on the Cuban church - in the growth of vocations, the frequency of participation in the Sunday Mass, and many people drawing closer to the church who had been distant.
Before the visit of the pope, did the Cuban government make it easier for people to attend Mass?
This has been a slow process, beginning in the 1980s. Religious repression has been diminishing little by little. There was an evolution on the part of the government. There was an increase in communication with the Cuban church, conversations between the government and the bishops that we couldn't have before. The tension began to diminish.
Are there still some limits that the Christians face or which the church faces in practicing the faith?
The limits aren't about practicing the religion. We have a much more religious liberty. The limits we face as a church now are that we still don't have the possibility of having Catholic schools, or to be able to teach religion in the schools. And there are limits in having access to the media. Slowly we are always achieving a little more. Perhaps one of our bishops is able to speak on the radio in one of the dioceses during Holy Week. I too have been able to talk on the radio to give a Christmas message. But we don't have customary access to communications mediums.
We do have missionary houses. In Havana there are more than 400 mission homes. These are family homes where people from a neighborhood get together. The children who go are instructed. There are catechism classes for adults. There comes a moment where these homes form a Christian community. They function like a parish. Mass is celebrated sometimes. There are baptisms. These homes are important. For example, the other day in a town there is a deacon. I arrived and the deacon was coming from another small town where some 40 people had gotten together on a Saturday afternoon. He told me that there wasn't much participation in catechism in the church. But the number of children attending catechism in these houses of prayer is triple the number of children going to church. For a child to travel to a church -- the only one in a town -- is difficult. They have to be taken by an adult. The missionary houses of prayer are more accessible to them. This is a reality that is very new and that gives us a big challenge, because we are lacking the pastoral ministers to attend to all of this.
A very kind woman in one of the neighborhoods (Bahia) lends her home. The community is called "El Cristo de la Misericordia" (The Merciful Christ), because there's a devotion to the Merciful Christ. When I visited there were about 180-200 people in the backyard of the home under the trees. The people could hardly fit, but more than 120 received Communion. There's a man in this community who now wants to become a deacon. He's a doctor. People in this house have organized themselves. They have organized Caritas. They organized catechism classes. A team visits the sick. A missionary team visits homes the way homes were visited in the beginning of Christianity. This is like the church of the first centuries.
In what condition are the church buildings?
Fortunately, the German bishops, through their organization to help Latin America, have helped us for many years to re-construct churches and parish buildings which were in bad condition. The priests sometimes lived in a space in the back of a church very uncomfortably. There weren't any gathering places for the faithful. We are improving this little by little. Now there are places for the faithful to gather. Places where the priest can live decently.
San Jose Church was in the path of Hurricane Charley. Four other churches were affected. San Jose has benefited from the preoccupation of Father Marcos, so there is a help to lift this church. We are still waiting help for churches in other towns.
There's a lot of humidity in Cuba which affects the old wood in traditional churches. I have already repaired many churches since I got to Havana. Twenty years later, I am beginning to work on them for the second time.
There are two things that for me are fundamental. The first is priests. Without priests we don't have the Eucharist, and without the Eucharist we don't have the church. I have 23 deacons in my diocese. They are excellent men. They have been a blessing from God. They are a fantastic help to the pastor. But only the priest can serve as pastor. The priest is very necessary.
Also fundamental is the church as a center of reference. Even though we have houses of prayer, and sometimes we can have small Christian communities, there is still a need for the great center of reference which is the church in the middle of a town. When the church in a town is fixed, immediately the life of the people and the church is renewed. The church is a symbol of the continual renewal which the Catholic community has to have.
Can you speak a little about the relationship between Cubans in the U.S. and Cubans in Cuba? How do you see the role of the Cuban Church or the U.S. Church in helping with reconciliation?
I prefer the world "communion" to "reconciliation," because in reality, especially among Catholics, I don't think we are un-reconciled. I don't see that when Cubans visit their families, that the majority of Cubans are lacking in conciliation with their friends and family in Cuba. And when Cubans visit the U.S., there isn't a lack of respect with the people whom they are with. I think communion is the capacity to love and to feel like we are all one. That is the role of the church in the world to sow communion among countries, among different cultures, in the middle of a culture like [Los Angeles] where there are many nationalities.
When we talk about reconciliation that normally means rupture. There may have been political ruptures, but that is something else. Now, in talking about heart to heart from one Cuban to another, I don't think there is an attitude of hostility. I think what is needed is to foster closeness, love, comprehension and that we are all part of the same people. We are to treat each other with friendship and with love among all Cubans. Especially for those of us of Christian faith, we belong to the same church and to the same Lord.
Do you have a message for the Hispanic community here in Los Angeles?
We are following with a lot of interest the situation of the immigrants and all that the Catholic Church is doing for immigrants, not only in Los Angeles, but in the U.S. generally. From Cuba there are also many immigrants to the U.S. We feel very identified with your preoccupations and are asking God that there be solutions that are acceptable and sound.
Editor's note: Persons or organizations wishing to assist the church in Cuba, particularly Caritas Cuba, can contact Father Marcos Gonzalez, associate pastor, Holy Family Church in Glendale at (818) 247-2222.