Special Report -- Cuba
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Issue Date:  March 31, 2006

Catholic church in Cuba strives to reestablish the faith

Part 1 of 2 on Cuba
Part 1 looks at daily life as Cubans experience it, 47 years after the revolution, from free baseball to frequent blackouts.
Part 2 of 2 on Cuba
The Catholic church, suppressed for decades, is undergoing a slow revival in Cuba in recent years. While it still exists under restrictions and its numbers have dropped, it is able, as one bishop said, “to humbly put forward … that faith is an indispensable ingredient for good.”


Even in the worst of times, Maritza Sánchez never stopped attending church. José Luis Torres, raised in a secular family and in schools that deemed religion counterrevolutionary, didn’t even start attending until times had changed. Today both are helping the Catholic church work its way back into Cuba’s public consciousness, Sánchez as director of the aid group Cáritas and Torres as coordinator of youth programs in Havana.

Once one of Cuba’s seminal institutions -- even President Fidel Castro attended Jesuit high schools -- the Catholic church suffered three decades of repression and reprisal following the socialist revolution in 1959. Most churches stayed open, but anyone who openly declared religious faith was prohibited from certain studies or careers. More than 400 Catholic schools were closed and confiscated.

After having long maintained that churches were fronts for subversive political activity, the government reversed course in 1992, amending the constitution to characterize the state as secular instead of atheist. Religious liberties further expanded following a visit by Pope John Paul II in 1998.

Cuba today, however, is still no bastion of religious liberty. The government delays immigration and residence permits for priests, denies the church access to the Internet, and still prohibits religious schools. The U.S. State Department charged in 2005 that worshipers across the religious spectrum are still subject to state surveillance, although Catholic church officials maintain that direct repression and reprisals have all but disappeared.

The church remains cautious in dealing with the authorities out of concern that policies to allow more religious freedom could just as easily be reversed. The focus instead is on religious belief as a personal responsibility that transcends the institutional status of the church.

“We cannot alter the life process of a country in order to aggressively impose faith,” said Bishop Juan de Dios Hernández Ruiz, auxiliary bishop of Havana. “The church’s strategy is not so much to regain ground lost over time, but to humbly put forth what we are convinced of: that faith is an indispensable ingredient for good.”

The number of people identifying themselves as Catholics has declined over many years to less than half the Cuban population. At the Our Lady of Carmen Parish in central Havana, for example, Fr. Teodoro Becerril estimates weekly attendance at 2,000 worshipers -- which seems considerable until he notes that the number was 7,000 in 1958, the year the 70-year-old priest took up his post.

Aside from problems with the government, reasons for the decline include the growth of Protestant denominations and the numerous exoduses from the island. One high-ranking church official noted that the fear that persists in the public mind about declaring faith is as much an obstacle today as the actual consequences of doing so.

“We are emerging from a period when the transmission of faith from generation to generation was cut,” said Becerril. “The situation has improved, but people are still cautious. They want to see where this train is going to stop before they commit themselves.”

After a boom following the constitutional change and papal visit, church attendance has leveled off. Of the indicators used to measure church participation in Cuba’s largest archdiocese of Havana, only the number of baptisms exceeds numbers in a comparable U.S. diocese. And though Havana’s 34,000 baptisms in 2004 represented a sizable number, Becerril noted the special circumstances.

“Most people who bring their children for baptism are not practicing Catholics. They say to me, ‘I don’t want what happened to me to happen to my child.’ They want to be ready if there is another period of repression.”

The problem is that only 10 percent of baptized Catholics in Cuba are believed to attend Mass regularly, and, as the priest added, “the older they get, the less they participate.” The number of confirmations bears him out: only 740 in all of Havana in 2004, this in an archdiocese of 85 parishes spanning three provinces with a population of over 3 million. The city’s 413 Catholic marriages in 2004 was the lowest since 1993.

Becerril said keeping the faith is difficult because “the average young person today wants to leave the country. In Cuba, if you don’t accept the career offered you by the state, you have no future. Some say they might go to the United States. So they are in a position of choosing to participate in a future that is uncertain.”

Torres, 31, coordinator of archdiocese youth programs for the past seven years, agreed that the church can expect stops and starts in the years ahead. As much as three-fourths of the population has never known any government other than the current regime.

“In Cuba today, religion is still something relatively new. So despite its long history, the church in a sense is just starting out.” Torres said he first came to church as a young adult, out of curiosity.

Torres runs youth programs such as an interparish soccer league that has 23 teams and 200 participants. Most are not Catholics, however, so the church treads softly. “The league enables us to open a dialogue with young people about virtues and values. But we don’t pray at the games because they take place in public and we don’t want to have any problems,” Torres said.

Outreach beyond traditional religious boundaries to address social issues also is no easy task in Cuba. With an annual budget of only $400,000, Cáritas provides social services through a parish-level network of volunteers. But unlike the situation in other countries, Cáritas in Cuba is prohibited from importing goods, is required to make all purchases at exorbitant retail prices, and is restricted to accepting donations from state-approved funding sources.

“What I can tell you is that we are tolerated,” explained Sánchez, 49, director of Cáritas since it opened in 1991. “It is difficult to develop any programs that involve collaboration between the church and government. The problem is the ideology that no one can be the protagonist in these matters except the state.”

Despite the ubiquitous role of the state in Cuban life, other factors affect the Catholic church in this diverse nation of 12 million people. The church must address issues confronting societies across the globe, such as materialism, the breakdown of families, and changes in cultural values fueled by mass media.

“It is a mistake to think that just because we are an island we are somehow separated from worldwide trends,” said Bishop Hernández. “Some trends might get here a little later than other places, but they get here.”

David Einhorn is a freelance writer based in Washington.

New Cuba bishop speaks out

Juan de Dios Hernández Ruiz became the auxiliary bishop of Havana Jan. 14. The 57-year-old Jesuit priest is a native of Holguín in eastern Cuba. “I love this country and I love Jesus Christ and the church,” he said. “These are the three loves that define my life.” Below are excerpts from an interview with the bishop just days after he took office.

“It is impossible to explain the Catholic church in Cuba or anywhere else from anything other than the perspective of faith. It’s true that its temples and its social and educational institutions allow for its visible manifestation. But faith as a culture transcends institutional elements, and the more profound reality of the church can only be experienced through that tool. Faith is the only way to access and fully comprehend the mystery -- that is to say, the spirituality -- that is the church.

“At any given moment, a religious institution anywhere might find itself facing direct or indirect forms of repression. But when faith is culture, even in Cuba, which has faced enormous problems in holding onto its enormous reserve of Christianity, faith endures despite all of these difficulties.

“Without a doubt, religious freedom was directly and sometimes violently infringed upon for many years in Cuba. There were times when it was very difficult for people to attend church. Thank God, there are fewer such problems today: Direct challenges by state institutions to the very right to religion have all but disappeared. We are free to publicly express our faith, and every diocese today has some kind of newsletter or magazine. This is what gives us hope that times are indeed changing.”

-- David Einhorn

National Catholic Reporter, March 31, 2006

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