.- Servant of God Fr. Felix Varela, a 19th-century educator and slavery abolitionist who advocated for Cuban independence, has been declared “venerable” by Pope Benedict XVI in recognition of his heroic virtues.
“He was an exemplary priest, jealous for the salvation of the souls, motivated profoundly by his life of prayer, and by a fervent love of God and fellow men,” said a March 14 decree from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
The congregation praised his “remarkable personality” and his “Christian and priestly virtues.” It unanimously recommended papal approval for the declaration.
The priest’s travels took him from Cuba to Spanish-held Florida in the early 1800s. He spent three years in Spain and lived in New York for 30 years before returning to Florida, where he died in 1853.
The decision to declare Fr. Varela “venerable” drew praise from the lands where he ministered.
On Easter Sunday, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York announced the Pope’s approval of the declaration.
“The Archdiocese of New York rejoices at the news that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints has declared Father Felix Varela Venerable, the first and a significant step on the road to possible eventual beatitude and canonization,” the archdiocese said April 8.
In Florida, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami noted the Pope’s description of Fr. Varela as a “shining example” of the contributions a person of faith can make.
“Varela in his own words reminds us that ‘there is no authentic fatherland without virtue’,” the archbishop said April 9.
Fr. Varela was dedicated to his faith from an early age.
“I want to be a soldier of Christ. My purpose is not to kill men, but to save souls,” he said at the age of four, according to the declaration from the Vatican congregation.
Fr. Varela, the son of a Spanish Army captain, was born in Havana on Nov. 28, 1788. In 1794 he traveled to St. Augustine, Florida. Despite the prospect of a promising military career, he entered Havana’s College Seminary of St. Charles and St. Ambrose and was ordained on December 1811.
He taught philosophy and law at the seminary. During his tenure at the seminary, he wrote a popular philosophy textbook and became prominent in education and economic development. In 1821 he was elected to represent the Cuban people in the Spanish Parliament, where he introduced proposals in favor of the abolition of slavery and in favor of self-rule for the Spanish colonies in the Americas.
The proposals ran afoul of King Fernando VII. He imposed the death penalty on political and military leaders opposed to absolute monarchy, including the priest.
Fr. Varela fled to the United States, where he became a pastor and later vicar general of the newly created Diocese of New York. He built new churches, asylums and schools and launched social programs. He also worked with immigrants, particularly those from Ireland.
He continued his intellectual work in defense of Catholic doctrine, the abolition of slavery and the independence of Cuba. He spent the last years of his life in Florida, where he died in St. Augustine on Feb. 18, 1853.
The priest’s remains now rest at the Great Hall (Aula Magna) of the University of Havana.
Fr. Varela won praise from Pope Benedict during the recent papal visit to Cuba.
The Pope’s homily for the March 28 Mass at Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución called Fr. Varela an “illustrious son of Havana” who was “the first one who taught his people to think.”
“Father Varela offers us a path to a true social transformation: to form virtuous men and women in order to forge a worthy and free nation,” he said.
Oswaldo Paya, the Cuban-born global director of the Christian Liberation Movement, anticipated the declaration in a March 2012 interview with CNA about the priest.
Fr. Varela is very popular among Cubans, he said.
“They see him as one of the shapers and founders of our national identity, as the man who spoke to us about national independence and against slavery.”