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May-June 2012

Vol. 37, No. 3


Through the looking glass: A visit to Cuba

In late March, two staff members of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns visited Cuba to explore the possibility of establishing there a collaborative project. A potential project would explore the experiences of the Cuban people during the past 50 years in order to analyze the learnings which might apply to the U.S. and other countries in a time of questioning the centrality of corporate economic growth for a democratic society.

This exploration was generated by Maryknoll's desire to move into its second century of its existence with fresh energy for understanding the world of today, in order to respond with creativity to its needs.

The March 26-28 visit of the Holy Father provided an excellent opportunity to enter Cuba. The Daughters of Charity, through the archdiocese of Havana, provided the required religious visa and also hospitality to the MOGC staff. It was an immense grace to lodge with the sisters; they went out of their way to be of help and provide guidance, and even provided tickets to the Mass of the Holy Father; this enabled witnessing the ceremony at close range and gave the chance to talk to people about the impact of the papal visit.

It would seem that the papal visit served as a profound reminder to the Cuban people that the world beyond their island borders has not forgotten them. The isolation imposed by the U.S. embargo against Cuba and the Cuban government's strict control both limit information from the world beyond Cuba, a heavy privation given that the present period in the larger world is characterized by information sharing.

Pope and Raul Castro

Pope Benedict XVI speaks with
Cuban president Raul Castro

In his homily in Havana, the Holy Father drew attention to religious freedom as the harbinger of all human well-being with the following words: "Strengthening religious freedom consolidates social bonds, nourishes the hope of a better world and creates favorable conditions for peace and harmonious development, while at the same time establishing solid foundations for securing the rights of future generations."

These remarks speak to the Catholic Church's relentless work in Cuba to steadily claim the space of social justice within its jurisdiction. Under the leadership of Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the Church has moved forward along a difficult path that hopes not to return to the capitalistic and corrupt past before the Revolution, but to find its way forward into a new time that upholds the universal rights of all people in a free society.

In the work of acquiring concessions in the realm of religious freedom, Cardinal Jaime, as he is affectionately called, has created an archdiocese that follows his valiant leadership in a remarkable commitment to solidarity. In spite of many limitations and restrictions, considering the intense persecution of the Church in the early decades of the Revolutionary government, the present time in the Church is a blessing.

One positive sign is the Instituto Maria Reina: Fifty religious congregations belong to this institute which serves to form young religious and some lay people in theological sciences. After years of arduous work to get the institute on a solid foundation, it is now affiliated with the Jesuit Unibersidad Iberoamericana in Mexico, which confers a licenciatura degree. While the Cuban government does not recognize the degree, the mere fact of establishing an educational institution where thinking not limited by official state ideology is allowed is in itself a large achievement.

Five decades ago the seminary was forcibly closed. Today a new seminary exists and the former site is being slowly renovated as a Diocesan Cultural Center that honors Fr. Felix Varela, who in the 19th century was deeply committed to social transformation. In 1836 he wrote, "There is no authentic fatherland without virtue," a statement which belies the promotion of materialistic atheism which has left Cuban society with weakened moral and ethical systems. It is in this Center that the archdiocese offers an MBA program that carries with it hope for economic reform undergirded by a structure of correct business ethics. Each of these gains negotiated by the Church with the government is more than it seems; each is a container that holds the promise of expansion toward total human development.

Some of the other experiences of this visit will be shared in the months to come. What is ultimately harvested from the trip may well be different from what was originally anticipated. Certainly, the experience of the Church was illuminating and inspiring. The visit and its meaning for Maryknoll will be ruminated upon, prayed over and thoroughly analyzed during this Easter Season and in the light of Pentecost. §

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