On a day not far away, a tarja placed in some space of the Cathedral of Havana will indicate the place where the mortal remains of Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino definitively rest. However, this call to alert the memory of pilgrims with their name, dates, episcopal motto and cardinal shield, will not be able to reveal the deep imprint it has left on the history of the Church and Cuba. It was not his purpose, but in choosing his vocation and dedicating himself to it the way he did, he ended up being the active and committed archbishop of Havana, the diocese where almost none of his predecessors came to an end amid applause, if he could conclude his pastoral government. But he loved the city and its people, and received the love of the Habaneros. Providence allowed him to fulfill his mission in Havana for nearly thirty-five years.
As if that were not enough, he did so in the midst of an unprecedented social whirlwind in Cuba, in the host city of the central and centralizing government, the most complex and visible square of the Church on the island, the most pleasant and the most ungrateful, where all the spotlights and all minds ready to question point, under the scrutinizing gaze and attentive ear not only of those responsible for that Government , but also of diplomatic representations, the international press, foreign visitors, dissidents, intellectuals, opinions and actions impossible to ignore from a linked exile, even of the other dioceses living somewhat different realities to Havana. As the Church itself is a living society, the demands of different trends among Catholics themselves in relation to ecclesial and social life must be added to the above.
“You know nothing boy, do you?” asked Monsignor Pedro Meurice on the day of his episcopal ordination in Matanzas to Father Jaime. “Nothing of what, monseignetor?” he answered. “You don’t know anything. You will learn,” concluded the then archbishop, primately, his words of commiseration and alertness. The dialogue could have been much shorter, perhaps there would have been no dialogue, if the primacy had only told him in good Cuban: Get ready!
The first time I greeted Archbishop Jaime, it was at the Feast of Mary Immaculate in 1982, in the church of the same name of San Lázaro street. He was then twenty years old, and Nory, my girlfriend, and I came to greet him, as dozens of people did at the end of Mass. After introducing us, I asked him, “What do we need to do to talk to the bishop?” and showing that smile that welcomed so many he immediately replied, “Call my secretary and she gives you an appointment.”
I did it. Thus was born a relationship that I will always thank God for. It was for me, spiritual father, friend and also chief. Our relationship was deeply human because it was not simply bishop and lay, chief and subordinate, nor was it always harmonious to one hundred percent. She was deeply human because she allowed me to be a spiritual son, friend, and a collaborator, in ecclesial service, who thinks and speaks, because by sharing the same faith, we shared the same service to the Church of Jesus Christ. The differences in criteria were not hidden but always expressed, because that’s how he allowed me to and so I wanted to listen to him. On many occasions, on issues and situations not foreed for me, we work together, we write together, we wait together, we rejoice or we hurt together. I met at some point his irritation, and he did not deny me to know his humility and ability to ask forgiveness; then it was bigger before me.
And it is true that, with the government of his Church in office, the last word corresponded to him, but he gave space and allowed him to create them, let it do, let it grow, it gave encouragement and hope.
A lot I could say about so many shared experiences. There are two who may not be the most important, but they are examples of their pastoral zeal and charity, and their defense of the Church.
The first is in direct relation to his beginnings as cardinal. I think I was the only Cuban present that noon in St. Peter’s Square on October 30, 1994. At the end of the Angelus, Pope John Paul II read in Latin the list of the new cardinals appointed by him, among them Jaime Lucas Ortega Alamino, Archbishop of Havana. Witnessing the announcement was a great privilege and a great joy.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, I immediately returned to the Roman Pensionato, where I had arrived the night before to make a stopover on my trip to Africa, and telephoned the Archbishopric of Havana to congratulate him. It was 6:30 a.m in Havana and Sister Victoria replied, I asked her to talk to him. I was already awake. In fact, I knew later, several Cuban bishops were also there with him, the nuncio and Adela, his mother, all awaiting the Pope’s public announcement in Rome. After hearing his voice on the phone saying “I hear, ” I replied, “Your Eminence! Oh, congratulations!” He thanked me, told me that he was the first to congratulate him after the announcement, and soon after the repique of the Havana bells was arranged. I immediately also called my wife to break the news, and that day she was able to go with our children to the Cathedral to participate in the official mass of the announcement. I confess here that my wife had preached to me more than once: “Jaime will be the next cardinal of Cuba”.
After concluding my one-month African journey, I returned to Rome. Days earlier the Consistory had been held and the Cubans who accompanied him began the return home, but I was able to find him, next to Adela, in the residence where he stayed in Rome. He traveled to Madrid before and a few days later we met again in that city and to my surprise, my ticket back to Havana, bought two months earlier in Iberia, coincided with his. We traveled together on December 9th. When the plane hit the airport runway and we could see the people greeting from the balcony of Terminal 1, he decided to wear the red cassock and someone accompanying him asked if he considered such a decision prudent. He replied that there he was to be received by his priests, his religious, his laity, his Church: “I dress in red,” he concluded. One of the travelers on that flight was Gabriel García Márquez, who, upon seeing him before leaving the ship, congratulated him and said with a smile, “It suits the red.” I had only two chances left on the photographic roll and went down before him, so I could take that picture at the plane door as I greeted and blessed those who had managed to occupy the balcony of the airport. As critics never lacked, years later a person asked me if he believed I was the Pope when I took that pose, I answered as best I could. If Jaime Ortega had walked on the water, his critics would have said he couldn’t swim.
The other event took place a few years later, on November 2, 1999. At that time I also served as a spokesman for the Conference of Bishops, and that day, shortly after arriving early at my office at the Archbishopric of Havana, he called me to his room. He was preparing to preside over the Mass of the Deceased Faithful in the chapel of the Columbus Cemetery, and asked me if he knew what Fidel Castro had said the night before on the National Television about Monsignor Pedro Meurice, where he was inexplicably accused of plotting to sabotage the Ibero-American Summit that would take place days later in Havana. I told him I recorded it. I hand-transcribed Fidel Castro’s words into a piece of paper and handed them to him at his car door as he left. When I returned, around noon, he called me back to his room. On the other side of the same paper I gave him, he had handwritten a text that only he could decipher and dictated it to me to spread it to the press immediately. It was his “explanatory note” to the commander’s accusation against the bishop, and his bluntness left no doubt:
“The words, homilies or public statements of the Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, on any occasion, have not been the fruit of any manipulation, and this is very personal to me, but have been dictated by his conscience as a solicitous Pastor, who has felt as something very typical of his pastoral duty, to express what his thought is on the issues of concern to the Church and to the Cuban people. The unity of criteria, of action and collegial affection among Cuban bishops and with the Holy Father, is a precious gift that Jesus Christ, Good Shepherd, has given to the Church of Cuba, and Cuban bishops will be able to defend it at any cost.”
A few hours later, I went up to Nioves’ office, his secretary then, and as we talked, the fax-sending and receiving machine was activated and the roll of paper was giving in to the shipment. Nioves picked it up and set out to keep it, but before he decided to show it to me. There was plenty of room in that spread for the few words it contained. From Madrid, where he was then, Archbishop Meurice wrote by hand a message to the cardinal who, confident in my memory, transcribed here: “Jaime, thank you. Rarely have I felt the Church closer. Your brother, Pedro.” There was no counter-re-application. I remembered that from before, much earlier, John Paul II referred to Jaime Ortega as “the other commander”.
The last time I saw Cardinal Jaime Ortega, I also did so with Nory, my wife. It was weeks before his death. We spoke briefly. We prayed together our Father and gave us his blessing, extending to our children. Then we’re out of our way. Everything had been said.
Now I realize how decisive the lapidary phrase he chose as his motto to identify his episcopate has been in his life, because he was recognized and rewarded, chosen for unique missions and applauded, was also attacked, despised and suffered terrible illness at the end of his days, and it is with his death that everything takes on meaning. For in the end, when the moment of the sting had passed, Jaime, the man of consecrated life, remained alone, like the Apostle, before God’s answer: “My grace is enough for you”. Ω
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