My relationship with Jaime Ortega

Text and photos monsignor Antonio Rodríguez (Father Tony)

Cardenal Ortega y monseñor Antonio Rodríguez
Cardenal Ortega
Cardenal Ortega

Three years ago I asked The New Word to give me the opportunity to write a farewell article to whom, until that time, I had been Archbishop of Havana. I titled it Praise to Jaime Ortega. I was moved by the reason that the Cuban cardinal was a public man and so, as there were people who praised her management, there were also others, not a few, who criticized her. As I said in the article mentioned above, I was one of those who disagreed with him in some situations. However, I forgot to say that many of his thoughts and actions matched mine. He ended up calling his more than thirty years of habaneros positive. I also mentioned that you could not write the history of the Church in Cuba without talking about its many positive works for the Cuban ecclesiastical institution and people.
I met Father Jaime Ortega forty-seven years ago. Then, from Matanzas, he attended the Seminary of San Carlos and San Ambrosio on Wednesdays to explain the subject of Special Moral Theology. In the course 1975-1976 I had him as a teacher.
I was in Pinar del Río, and everything was ready for my diaconal and priestly ordination, when Father Jaime was appointed bishop of that diocese. The news, though astonished, gave me satisfaction. I remember that beautiful afternoon of January 21, 1979 when he took possession of the diocese in the cathedral. Young and with a permanent smile, he entered dressed in a choral habit and walked down the central corridor of the temple, spraying the pine and bushy crowd that applauded him. Subsequently, the celebration of Holy Mass began. With him concelebrated the Archbishop of Havana, Archbishop Francisco Oves; Bishop of Matanzas, Msgr. José Dominguez; the Bishop of Cienfuegos-Santa Clara, Msgr. Fernando Prego and the outgoing apostolic pro nuncio, Msgr. Mario Tagliaferri. A week earlier he had been ordained bishop in the cathedral of his native Matanzas. The ovations took place at the celebration. Quickly, the 1st. of April of the same year, I was his first ordained deacon and eighteen days later, he celebrated my priestly ordination, also the first.
During his nearly three pinareño years, Msgr. Jaime threw himself into a pocket the faithful of the diocese. They were like kids with a new toy. His homilies dazzled and his renewed pastoral activity greatly stimulated the laity. I remember the pastoral visits he made during those years: Consolation of the South, St. John and Martinez, Artemis and St. Louis. He held parochial substitution functions in several towns. I do not forget the week of the visit to San Juan y Martínez, since February 4, 1980. He lived in my house for all those days. He walked the streets, visited the sick, and officiated in the four chapels I was attending at the time. He went on a battered safari to the highest of the hills of Las Cuevas to celebrate Mass to a much-decreased turnout of six people, as the rest of the formerly considerable population of that place had moved to the nearby village of Sábalo. In July of the following year we performed similar action, but for only three days in the parish of San Luis and its two chapels.
During his pastoral action in Pinar del Río, Msgr. Jaime raised the Self-Esteem of the Church in that province. I recall your intervention before Party authorities and Dr. Felipe Carneado in the Central Committee of the PCC in order to defend violated rights of Pinarian Catholics. We will always keep a grateful memory for that bishop who was subsequently transferred to the Archdiocese of Havana.
Although I have remained in Pinar del Río, he was always close to me, both in my illnesses and when I went to study in Spain.
In 1993 I was appointed by the Episcopal Conference Rector of the Seminary. I asked him to work pastorally in some activity and he appointed me an adviser to the Council of Laity. I accepted my decisions at school for seminarians. Some Saturday mornings, at the archbishopric’s headquarters, we talked amenably. On the dawn of Sunday, October 30, 1994, we were surprised by the news that St John Paul II had made him cardinal. It was a joy of exaggerated triumphalism on the part of Cuban Catholics. Time made sure the waters took their level.
At the end of my rectorial function, I returned to the parish of Artemis, in the Parish diocese, and there he visited me twice. He was always attentive to me. I can never forget that, when my mother died, a symposium was being held on the person of Jesus Christ, convened by Cardinal Ortega, in the Minor Basilica of St. Francis of Asses. I was surprised to see that she took time out of lunchtime to go to Goira de Melena to my mom’s wake and convey her condolences to me. He was accompanied by Msgr. Salvador Riverón and two priests. I will live eternally grateful for this gesture.
Again I was surprised by Cardinal Jaime on the morning of June 9, 2008. He called me by phone and told me that he would send his car to come to the archbishopric, they were waiting for me with him Msgr. Enrique Serpa, Msgr. Juan García and Msgr. Juan de Dios Hernández. I didn’t know what I was going to do. On that occasion he appointed me rector of the Seminary. At this stage there were his complications between me and the archbishop. We had divergent ideas about what the seminary should be. On 10 June 2010 he requested the luminous Pope Benedict XVI to honour six priests on the occasion of the end of the Priestly Year. Thus, the Pope Emeritus appointed me his chaplain and added to my name the title of monsignor.
I know that I discovered in the Cardinal Archbishop of Havana a priest of prayer, of daily Mass, of assiduous confession. Austerity was not the style of his life, but he always took care of the poor. The goodness of his priestly heart was abundantly expressed in mercy with sinners and suffered. The nearly thirty-five years at the head of Havana’s episcopal government, coupled with the cardinal weight, made his management very person-centered. Those who know me know that my thoughts have not coincided several times with those of man Jaime Ortega. In specific situations I have not agreed with the methods and scopes of their relationship with the Government. Ecclesial obedience is not for the Catholic synonymous with submission and flattery, but that which enables his true freedom.
A few months ago I reflected on something I learned in my Universal History classes at the seminary. The teacher was the priest friend and Christian exemplary, Dr. Julio Morales Gómez. He once referred to the death of Louis XIV, the Sun King, who ruled France for seventy-two years. Its time is called the century of Louis XIV. They called him Louis the Great, and he believed it. But like all humans, one day death came to him. The funeral was held at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The funeral sermon was delivered by one of the church’s greatest sacred speakers, Father Masillon. From the cathedral pulpit he gestured to indicate the fabrics that hung from the columns, which had engraved two large letters: LG (El Grande). All this happened without a word. Then he pointed to the coffin with the king’s corpse and said, “Only great is God.” He then developed his oratory piece. On my own, I add: men, as much as we have done in life, if we are dust in history. Great is only God.

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