Cardinal Jaime Ortega speaks of the call of God, the religious vocation and his ministry as Archbishop of Havana, among other topics, in this interview, the last to be conducted to him.
“The bishop is a priest in fullness and serves to death. I will continue to baptize, confess, confirm, attend the sick, and celebrate Holy Mass daily. The bishop, as a priest, never retires, leaves a position of direction.” Thus said goodbye to that warm morning on Sunday, May 8, 2016, Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino before the considerable crowd that filled the chair for him ruled for thirty-five fruitful years. Cubans and foreigners had come, known and anonymous, to participate in the last Mass that as Archbishop of San Cristobal de La Habana would officiate the almost octogenarian, but vital and elegant cardinal, who for his diplomatic and mediating work undoubtedly occupied a prominent place in insular political starvation.
The interview contained in these pages had begun its history a few months earlier, when at 10:45 on the 1st. December 2015, wet by the drizzle of a winter Monday, I crossed the hall of the archbishop’s seat in the old house on the corner of Havana and Chacón. In a spacious stay on the second floor with a wood smell and centuries past, I was greeted by the then archbishop and discussed the history of Cuba, politics, Marxism, culture and, of course, religion. But of those three and a half hours I can not say anything, because it was the previous meeting for an interview, “made by a young Cuban for young Cubans” – in his own words – that for various reasons it would not materialize until very recently and which, condemned as he seems to have been born, will be irretrievable and sadly unfinished.
After more than four years of swings, the event finally took place in one of the corridors of the Convention Palace, after listening to the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Monsignor Vicenzo Paglia. The chance encounter with the already ill Cardinal Ortega resulted in this interview.
Priests always speak of a call, the awakening of a vocation. How was yours?
“The vocation to the priesthood, or any other lay vocation or consecration to the Church, is not given without, above all, a personal encounter with Christ. This means knowing Jesus, establishing a relationship with him, discovering his reality of man-God sent by the Father for our salvation. Many Christians who go to church frequently, who pray their daily prayers, have never had this personal encounter with Christ, without whom even some might believe that they have a priestly or religious vocation, perhaps because they like worship, the liturgy of the Church, the use of an ecclesiastical habit, or any other element. But you will discover sooner or later that none of that constitutes God’s call.
“Like many, I was baptized as a child, at the age of five in the Cathedral of Matanzas. In my family there was the traditional Catholic faith, but they frequented the Church only a few times in the year. I learned by heart in my house a catechism of questions and answers that was very popular, from St Pius X. I knew who Jesus Christ was, but I knew it the same way I knew the Moon was spinning around the Earth and the Earth around the Sun. I mean, it was just knowledge, but it had nothing to do with me. At the age of fourteen I approached the Youth of Catholic Action, made my First Communion and step by step I made my personal encounter with Christ. And, as I was saying, without this encounter you cannot give the call.
“John and Peter had met Christ, and so had other disciples. When Jesus passed by the shore of the lake and saw them swallowing with nets after fishing, He said to Peter, ‘Come, you will be a fisherman of men’, and James and John, ‘Follow me,’ and they left everything and left with him, Jesus already knew them and knew that they were good for the mission, and they knew Jesus and knew that his call came from on high.
“This is always the true vocation, so we are able to leave the boats, the nets, the family, the aspirations of success or wealth, and personally follow the Master and Lord. In the knowledge of Jesus comes love to him, our trust in him.”
Where did your studies go before you were ordained a priest?
“I spent four years at the San Alberto Magno Seminary in Colón, in the province of Matanzas. I studied Latin, Greek and philosophy, I also did the fifth year of Baccalaureate in Letters, because I was a bachelor of science. I then studied four years of theology at the Foreign Missions Seminary in Canada in the city of Montreal. It was an excellent place, we were about eighty seminarians who studied Theology, with a great emphasis on the Holy Scriptures and a life of unforgettable prayer and fraternity. From 1960 to 1964 I lived that wonderful experience, in difficult times, because in the sixties began the great changes of the world that logically affected the Church.”
These were very complex times for the Cuban Church.
“That’s right. With the drastic revolutionary change, the Church faced new and challenging situations: Catholic schools, which educated more than a hundred thousand students, were nationalized and we lost access to them. More than a hundred priests were sent out of Cuba and many other priests, religious and lay people committed to the Church left the country.
“In 1964 I returned. The Fathers of the Foreign Missions offered to me go as a priest to Rome to do a PhD and then send me to the Philippines or some Seminary in South America as a teacher, but I wanted to go back to my country.”
It’s the UMAP years. I know you don’t like to talk about it much.
“Really, no. Amid the tensions between a materialistic system and those who had a religious faith in their lives, the latter was regarded by some in the new society as a ballast, something from the past that had to be overcome. For this ‘overcoming’ the Military Production Aid Units (UMAP) were created. In the case of believers, their intention was to overcome the ‘deficiencies of faith’ through manual agricultural work and military discipline. Work camps emerged on the plains of what are now the provinces of Ciego de Avila and Camaguey. There we were sent priests, evangelical pastors from different congregations, seminarians and Lay Catholics and Protestants from all over Cuba, along with what was called at that time ‘social scourges’: expressive, drug addicts, santeros, homosexuals, etc. Everyone was trying to ‘re-edit’ them through work in the field.
“It was certainly an experience that confirmed the faith of most of those who lived it. For me, specifically, he helped me to a deep knowledge of the human being in his greatness and in his miseries, to see how much had to be done for our Cuban brothers, not through those methods, but through integral human formation.
“After the UMAP, I was parish priest of different parishes in the province of Matanzas and in the city, in the churches of Pueblo Nuevo and the Cathedral. There I was surprised by the appointment for the bishopric of Pinar del Río, a diocese I considered, during the three years in which I was its bishop, as a moral reserve of Cuba.”
From Pinar del Río he passed to the Archbishopric of the Habanero.
“Because of the illness of the Archbishop of Havana, only three years after being bishop of Pinar del Rio, I was appointed in 1981 as archbishop of the capital, where I remained until the acceptance of my retirement by the Holy Father Francis, in May 2016. That is, for thirty-five years I served as Archbishop of Havana.”
Many identify their episcopate as a period of rapprochement between the Church and the Cuban state.
“It is true, but Church-State relations must be raised at a broader level than the time of my episcopate. After the sixties, and very slowly, there were some improvements in the relationship, but really after the first family visits of Cubans residing abroad, in the late seventies and the events of the Mariel, the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba called for a reflection that spanned the whole island, from the largest churches of the cities to the smallest chapels in the countryside. This fruitful project called Cuban Ecclesial Reflection (REC) lasted almost five years and prepared and organized the ENEC (Cuban National Ecclesial Meeting), which was held in 1986 with an envoy of the Holy See, Cardinal Eduardo Pironio, who proposed how the Catholic Church should present itself in the future of Cuba. It was to be a prayerless, embodied and missionary Church.”
How do you explain that?
“The Church accepted the reality of being here– incarnate – with her traditional role of worshipping God in an open and public way – who prays, prays – and, although her own task is to evangelize, she had remained folded, limited to worship within temples, and now announced that she was a missionary Church, which set aside her fears and retreats , to open up to the social media. At this point, which seemed to be something to achieve in the third term, the Church immediately began: to leave the temple, to live its mission, and this changed the perception of it by the people and the state. There were many things that had to be understood by the socialist state and so, precisely because of this, a dialogue was created that was progressively expanded.
“So in the history of the Church in Cuba, THE ENEC had more impact and resonance than the visits of the Popes, for the visit of Pope John Paul II came thanks to the openness and dialogue that were created from the ENEC. These events coincided with the time of my episcopate in Havana and facilitated Church-State relations in the archdiocese, but the dialogue grew wider and more multiple and not a few conflicts could be overcome across the country.”
Mediation for the release of political prisoners was one of those conflicts, perhaps one of the loudest.
“With regard to this, the same can also be said as about my episcopal management, for the Church in Cuba, since the post-ENEC times, has been concerned about prisoners of all kinds. One of the achievements of ENEC has been visits to prisons, where there is catechesis for inmates and regular celebration of the Eucharist.
“The mediating role of the Church is given to her by her mission of creating bridges, of reconciling; He has, given by his Master and Lord, the mission of bringing about and reconciling, mercifully favoring the suffering one. This mission, which we could indeed call ‘mediator’, is accomplished by the Church as long as it is called to it in a special way and its response is done with availability and service.
“Thus, as early as the 1980s, during the george bush administration (father), a delegation from the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba visited the US State Department and the White House, as the Cuban government would release a good group of political prisoners if the United States agreed to receive them there. The American Catholic Church contributed extensively and more than 1,200 political prisoners and their families were admitted to the United States. Cardinal John O’Connor paid for and sent the flights that led to this large number of people from Havana to New York.
“Years later, from the claims of the wives and mothers of the political prisoners of 2003 – the so-called Ladies in White – General Raúl Castro summoned me on May 19, 2010 to find a way to release the fifty-three that remained of the seventy-five group. The entire group of prisoners considered political, some with high sentences, was also included so that those who wished could leave Cuba with their relatives to the United States.
“That time the Americans did not accept and the Foreign Minister of Spain, Miguel Angel Moratinos, provided the possibility for them to go to that country and the agreement occurred. President Raúl Castro asked me to personally call prisoners to jail and ask them if they wanted to leave Cuba for Spain with their closest relatives or would rather stay here. It was a process of more than two months, but at last some 135 prisoners who went to Spain with their relatives came out progressively, totaling more than a thousand people. A small number of prisoners decided to remain in Cuba.”
That was a process very often by the Cuban people, but the best known and that will go down in history is undoubtedly mediation in the thaw between the United States and Cuba.
“One process relates to the other. This latest release of prisoners had a good resonance in the United States, specifically in Barack Obama’s administration, and was the first step in the thaw of relations between the two countries. In 2011 I went to the White House, after becoming interviewed with the undersecretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Arturo Valenzuela, who expressed to me the good reception of President Obama for these releases. The same thing happened to me the next day, at the White House, Homeland Security Adviser General James Jones, when I visited him to ask him to be admitted to prisoners who were in Spain and wanted to travel to the United States. In that case, he agreed to have only twenty families.
“At the request of the Holy Father, I intervened in mediation to improve relations between Cuba and the United States. That made me personally visit President Raúl Castro in Havana and President Barack Obama at the White House. This, as I greet myself, the first thing he did was congratulate me on my intervention in the release of political prisoners in 2010. That is why I say that had been a very important step in improving relations between Cuba and the United States.
“On those visits, I was the bearer of a personal letter from the Pope to each of the presidents. I had already delivered President Raúl Castro’s and gave President Barack Obama his letter, which he greatly appreciated by saying that the Pope’s intervention would be of great help in improving relations. I was also the bearer of a personal message from Raul Castro for President Barack Obama and this in turn sent Raul Castro, through me, a personal and hopeful message about improving relations.
“Everything else belongs to the realm of discretion and secrecy that made it possible for the Pope, a true mediator in this conflict, to achieve the success of the negotiation. In the book I have written about this important fact (Meeting, Dialogue and Agreement. Pope Francis, Cuba and the United States), I pay the Pope the tribute deserved by his mediation.”
After an episcopate so full of momentous facts, what balance would it make?
“It is not for me to take stock of my episcopate. All I can say is that I was happy to be the first bishop of Pinar del Río, albeit for a short time, and then archbishop of Havana for so many years, in which I lived through a difficult but interesting time, and experienced the affection and affection of the Habaneros. The city of Havana is for me, the same as that of Matanzas, my cordial reference place. My thirty-five years in Havana identify me in a special way with those who declared that this is a Wonder City.”
You never thought you’d leave Cuba? Exercise your ministry somewhere else?
“As a diocesan priest, I was ordained to a diocese of Cuba. The priestly vocation for the diocesan clergy is always thought of in relation to the people from whom we come and for whom we must work. I could not think of my vocation but in this way, I did not have a vocation to be a priest of the Church anywhere in the world. The diocesan priest serves not only his country, but that part of his people who belong to a particular diocese.
“When I was studying abroad, I could not fail to think of the apostolate future in my country, with my people, with its virtues and flaws. I did not conceived the development of my ministry anywhere else, but here, as part of this Cuban Church, limited and small, but full of spiritual vitality and hope. So, with bonanza or difficulty, I wanted to serve this people.”