Cuban Cardinal optimistic about future of Church

.- Despite limitations imposed on religious practice by Fidel Castro’s government, the Catholic Church in Cuba continues to welcome newly baptized members and to see a steady increase of vocations, as they have each year for the last 20 years.

“In the church there is always a youthful presence - not extraordinary - but there are very interested youth, very desiring of a Christian formation,” said Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino of Havana, who recently visited Los Angeles for the first time. He spoke with the U.S. bishops June 16 at their annual spring meeting in Los Angeles. He was later interviewed by The Tidings, the diocesan newspaper for Los Angeles, and Vida Nueva.

“Every year around Easter we baptize many adults. The majority are younger than 35 years old,” he told the newspapers. “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.”

The cardinal said the government-imposed limitations aren't so much about practicing religion anymore. “We have a much more religious liberty,” he said. “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,” the cardinal said. “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.”

Catholic schools are not permitted in Cuba. Therefore, children receive their Christian formation in “mission homes,” which function like a parish. These are family homes where people from a neighborhood get together and form a Christian community. There are more than 400 mission homes in Havana alone.

Despite the success of the mission houses, there is still a need for churches, the cardinal said. “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,” he told the newspapers.

Nonetheless, more than 300 lay people are studying philosophy, Church history, doctrine, and theology in a religious institute in Havana named Father Felix Varela.

This coming year, there will be more than 80 new seminarians in the seminary of Havana, as well as another 30 studying elsewhere.

“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,” the cardinal was quoted as saying.

Cardinal Ortega also emphasized the importance of priests in the Church. “Without priests we don't have the Eucharist, and without the Eucharist we don't have the Church,” he said. “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.”

The cardinal thanked the U.S. bishops for their continued spiritual and material support and encouraged Cubans living in the U.S. and those in Cuba to journey toward communion.

“I think communion is the capacity to love and to feel like we are all one,” he said. “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.”

Cardinal Ortega currently heads Caritas Cuba, the Catholic humanitarian aid agency. The cardinal has also sought to increase religious liberties for the communist country’s 11 million people.

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