His remarks were made during a forum on “Church and Community: the role of the Catholic Church in Cuba,” held at Harvard University. Appearing along with Cardinal Ortega was Cardinal Sean O’Malley, archbishop of Boston. The forum was chaired by Jorge Domínguez, Harvard’s vice provost for international affairs.
Cardinal Ortega said that it is necessary to bring about reconciliation among Cubans and he referred to a recent meeting, “A Dialogue Between Cubans,” that took place April 19-21 in Havana.
Among those who were present at the Havana meeting were people from Cuban organizations as well as Cuban exiles, academics and businessmen. Havana’s archbishop praised them for the constructive dialogue that took place at the meeting.
I’m not going to attack those who think differently about these matters, he said, but I think that they are doing a good thing and running many personal risks.
“The Church in Cuba, and myself, are attacked in every way possible, but I think that it is a good thing if we could bring about a process of reconciliation between Cubans,” he commented. He did, however, acknowledge that such a process faces many obstacles.
Cardinal Ortega recounted what the recently deceased Bishop Agustín Román had told him when he visited Miami in 1995. Bishop Román, who was the spiritual leader of the Cuban exiles, said that he knew that Cardinal Ortega often mentioned reconciliation in his speeches and homilies, but that he should not mention that word while in Miami.
It was difficult to do this, Cardinal Ortega said. “It is a shame that a bishop, that we, should have to silence a word that is ours, a part of Christianity.”
“What should we do,” he asked. “Always keep quiet? Wait for better times? “Or help bring about these better times so that we can understand what we have to be to become a reconciled people?
This task, he said, “will take time and perhaps even the martyrdom of some Christians, because there is no resurrection without the Cross.” As for himself, he commented that he has accepted “that this means he must bear a burden so as to move forward the reconciliation between Cubans.”
Referring to the visit to Cuban by John Paul II in 1998, Cardinal Ortega said that it marked the beginning of a new stage in Church-State relations in the country. It also opened up the way for more public demonstrations of faith and an expansion of educational and charitable work, as well as more coverage of religion in the media. It also became easier to obtain visas for priests and religious to come into Cuba.
Later on in the forum, responding to questions from the public, Cardinal Ortega admitted that the Church had been heavily criticized for its support of the Cuban revolution in the initial stages. He recalled how one European cardinal had said that the Church in Cuban had gotten what it deserved for having taken the side of the poor.
The Church in Germany and the United States had, however, continued to support them. The visit of Cardinal John O’Connor of New York in 1988 and his meeting with Fidel Castro, helped improve the situation for the Church in Cuba and even brought about the liberation of 400 political prisoners, said Cardinal Ortega.
More recently, he continued, that Church had played a mediating role in further releases of prisoners, who were even allowed to stay in Cuba after being freed.
Referring to the recent death of Bishop Román, Cardinal Ortega acknowledged that in some circles of Cuban exiles they had echoed the comment by the Washington Post that he was in effect a sort of partner with Raúl Castro
These polemics, he stated, have meant that the full extent of his efforts in Cuba have been overshadowed. Cardinal Ortega explained that new spaces had been opened for the Church to carry out its mission. An example of this is that while Catholic publications come under strong criticism they are read by the country’s leaders and their content is taken into account.
The Church has also been allowed to set up kindergartens for children and in this way open up possibilities in the area of education.
Currently in Cuba, Cardinal Ortega affirmed, there is an awakening of the faith and a greater attachment to the Church. Now that the oppression has diminished more people are taking their faith seriously and people are looking to the Church.
When it was his turn to speak Cardinal O’Malley started with a brief outline of the history of the Catholic Church in Cuba. He noted that at the beginning of the Cuban revolution many bishops supported the social justice agenda of Fidel Castro, “but when it became clear that his intention was to establish a Marxist dictatorship the Church withdrew its support.”
He went on to outline the persecution of the Catholic Church in the decades following the revolution, with many foreign-born priests expelled and the churches emptied due to the fear of government reprisals for church-goers. The visit of John Paul II was a watershed moment for the Church in Cuba, Cardinal O’Malley explained, and since then the Church has obtained much more space to carry out its pastoral mission.
“I am truly amazed to see the progress that has been accomplished and I want to say what an important role that Cardinal Jaime Ortega has played in this dramatic evolution of the history of the Church in Cuba,” he said.
The fact that 82% of the children born in the Archdiocese of Havana last year were baptized is a great source of hope for the future of our religion in Cuba, he added.
“I have no doubt that there are very difficult years ahead in this transition towards greater freedom and democracy but I know that the Church will continue to have a crucial role,” he concluded.
In reply to a question, Cardinal O’Malley noted that the Church in America has always been very supportive of the Church in Cuba and that the bishops’ conference has always been opposed to the American embargo on Cuba “which we see as having deleterious effects on the general population.” In any case, he added, the embargo has not been very effective in its political purposes.
On the Net:
Video of the conference: http://www.penultimosdias.com/2012/04/26/el-cardenal-jaime-ortega-en-harvard/.