JOURNEY WITH ACN is our weekly newsletter regularly posted to our website and designed to acquaint you with the needs of the Catholic Church around the world and introducing you to various projects we have helped to bring into being together with our partners and ACN benefactors.
This week: Cuba
The Church is inventive and full of life, but impoverished
In Guiteras, the cityscape is dominated by grey prefabricated buildings that are crumbling badly on account of the moist tropical temperatures. Approximately 32,000 people live in the suburb on the outskirts of the capital of Cuba, Havana. It is a place like many others on the Caribbean island. And yet, Guiteras is special all the same. This is where a new church is currently being built with the support of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) – in Cuba anything but an everyday occurrence.
In a place where no old churches date back to the time before the revolution, Catholics generally have to meet in private homes. Up until now, building permits for new church buildings have been approved in only a few cases. One of these privileged locations is Guiteras. Cuba’s head of state Raul Castro made the property available to the church after Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the island in 2012.
“Up until now, we have been praying and meeting in the courtyard of a private home. We are looking forward to moving into our new church,” Deacon Manuel Hernandez of the Catholic parish in Guiteras said. However, it will be a while before everything is ready. “We now have the building permit. However, there hasn’t been a lot of progress. We don’t have enough materials and building equipment. A bulldozer was supposed to excavate the foundation. It broke down after one hour. Now we simply have to wait.”
…”Today, hundreds of people come to our services. All Cubans believe. Anyone who claims anything else is lying.”
Saint Pope John Paul II will be the patron saint of the church. He was the first pope to visit the Caribbean island in 1998. The church in Cuba looks back on his visit as a breakthrough. After years of seclusion, it was finally able to come out into the open. The Catholic parish of Guiteras will not retreat back behind the walls of the new church in the future. “We have lay missionaries who go to homes. In addition, we pass out food to elderly people in need. We want to intensify these efforts once the new church is completed. We also want to build a pastoral centre and a sports field here. With these, we want to appeal to young people in particular.”
This pleases the old members of the parish. Amalia, for example, an elderly lady who is one of the founders of the Catholic parish in Guiteras. Together with other pious ladies, she prays the rosary in the temporary chapel on the property of the church building site.
“When the new church is finally standing, it will definitely draw more people. It is going to be wonderful. Twenty-one years ago we began meeting in private homes to read the Gospels and to pray. It wasn’t always easy. People were even not allowed to hang up a cross or a picture of the Virgin in the flats provided by the state.” However, she still believes that the message of the Gospels will fall on fertile ground in Cuba. “There used to be only a few. Today, hundreds of people come to our services. All Cubans believe. Anyone who claims anything else is lying.”
Open like St.Paul at the Areopagus in Athens
Professor Rene Zamora Marin is also a pioneer of faith. The doctor used to run an intensive care unit at Havana’s largest hospital. In 1997 he founded the “John Paul II Centre for Bioethics” in the Cuban capital. “The time my employees and I spend at the institute is time we would have devoted to sleep. But the work is worth it,” he said. The centre has 14 employees. “Our work areas naturally include the narrower bioethical issues such as stem cell research or brain death. However, we have since expanded our focus. Furthermore, an ethical problem like abortion cannot be considered in isolation. Abortion is always also a symptom of crisis in the family.” Imparting values in Christian spirit could therefore be the motto of the centre, which is supported by Aid to the Church in Need. Various offers for young people and adults set out to raise awareness of human dignity. “And then of course of the true interaction with each other that arises from this,” Professor Zamora emphasized.
His goal is to influence Cuban society. The history of the country has left its mark on the consciousness of the people. “We are having a crisis of values in Cuba. This is true for the family, but also for society as a whole. For this reason we address all people of good will. In doing so, we do not base our arguments on the catechism of the Catholic church but solely on reason ”, he explains.
”After all, every thinking person can understand the concept of a person and his or her dignity. Reason unites us all. It made it possible for the Apostle Paul to speak about an unknown God on the Areopagus in Athens.”
The magazine published by the institute, but also conventions, classes, discussions and in the meantime a cooperation with the Department of Philosophy of the University of Havana all make it possible to come into contact with those parts of society that do not go to Mass on Sundays. According to Professor Zamora, many people come to the centre to ask philosophical questions, to gather information, to exchange ideas and to expand their horizons. “Our work is highly respected. We have now even been made a member of the Academy of Sciences of Cuba. Our centre was also involved in a bill on brain death. This makes us very grateful.”
Aid to the Church in Need has been supporting the Catholic church in Cuba for many years. More than 2.3 million Canadian dollars were approved for pastoral projects on the Caribbean island this and last year alone, including the construction and renovation of churches as well as the training and support of priests and religious. About 60 per cent of the inhabitants of Cuba count as Catholic.