Cubans thrilled over Fr. Varela's step towards sainthood

.- The global director of the Christian Liberation Movement, Oswaldo Paya, said Cubans are overjoyed at recent approval of the heroic virtues of 19th century priest Father Felix Varela.

“It would be very wonderful” if Pope Benedict XVI declared him “venerable” before the pontiff's upcoming March 25-28 visit to the country, Paya told CNA.

On March 6, the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints approved a decree on the heroic virtues of Fr. Varela – who is widely considered the patron of Cuba – which must now be signed by Pope Benedict XVI. The priest would then need a Vatican-approved miracle to become beatified and another before being canonized.

Paya said a declaration by the Pope would be “great news” and is something “desired by very many Cubans” who already believe Fr. Varela lived a holy life. 

Nevertheless, Paya said he respects the Church’s decisions and trusts in her wisdom and inspiration “as mother and teacher.”

Paya said Fr. Varela is very popular among Cubans and that while many need to learn more about his life, “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.”

He said his life and work were the inspiration behind the Varela Project, which the Christian Liberation Movement launched to help bring about a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba.

Felix Varela Morales was born in Havana on November 20, 1788, orphaned at a young age, and raised by his grandparents. At the age of 23, he was ordained a priest and devoted himself to teaching.

In 1821 he was elected to represent of the Spanish colony of Cuba before the government of Madrid.
He left for Spain that year, never imagining that he would never again return to Cuba.

Fr. Varela made three proposals to the Spanish crown that would lead to his exile. He called for the abolition of slavery, for Cuban independence and for self-rule for the colonies in the Caribbean.

With the outbreak of Absolutism in Spain in 1823, Varela fled Madrid and was denied entry into Cuba.  He was forced to settle in New York, where he worked as a pastor and eventually as vicar general. He continued speaking out and writing for the defense of human rights and freedom for Cuba.

His poor health forced him to move to St. Augustine, Florida, where he spent the last four years of his life. He died on Feb. 25, 1853.

“Fr. Felix Varela is an example of holiness, priestly life and patriotism. To those of us who launched this campaign for peaceful change, for reconciliation and for the rights of the person, he is also a teacher and an inspiration,” Paya said.

Fr. Varela’s message is very relevant for present-day Cuba, he continued, “because we are living under a regime that is constantly trying to justify the denial of personal freedoms, the denial of civil and political rights, supposedly in defense of national independence and sovereignty. 

And Fr. Varela, as we know him here in Cuba, taught us that a nation is not sovereign if its people are not free, if their dignity is not respected, if all of their rights are not respected.”

Paya said Cubans who live exile can also identify with this priest who in his own life endured persecution and exile. 

“When speaking of Cubans who live in exile, we must think of them as punished, punished by this regime, because the worst thing for a Cuban to have to do is to leave his homeland. And Fr. Varela suffered this under threat of death.”

“This saintly man – and it’s not for me to proclaim he was, but I believe it myself and thus I have the freedom to say it – was also an example in his poverty, in his care for the poor,” Paya added.

“Like all the saints, his holiness was found precisely in giving of himself with the love that comes from Jesus Christ,” he said.

The Varela Project was launched in 2001 by the Christian Liberation Movement to promote the transition to peaceful democracy in Cuba through a massive drive to collect signatures in support of a referendum. The Cuban government rejected the petition despite massive support.

During his trip to Cuba in 1998, Pope John Paul II called Fr. Varela the “cornerstone of the Cuban nationality” and “the best synthesis between Christian faith and Cuban culture.”

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