The articulation of the Cuban health system, which rests on primary care, has allowed a fairly controlled management of covid-19 throughout the country. Church-run health institutions (nursing homes, psychiatric care facilities, and others, such as The Golden Age, for children with diminished capacity) have respected and complied with the medical protocols defined by the Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP) for this pandemic stage. For patients suspected of contagion admitted to one of these centers, they have been transferred to a state institution, either isolation or hospitals.
Communities have also accompanied the most vulnerable people who remain in their homes, especially during the “social isolation” stage. Similarly, when a focus has been detected and certain areas have been isolated, the Church has insisted on affective, spiritual follow-up and, in many cases, material support for food, grooming, and medicines, to those who need it most. This is the specific field in which the Church in Cuba has expressed its charitable commitment during this period.
It’s easy to say, but the experience we’ve experienced makes us think we’ve gone through “a real ordeal.” The arrival of covid-19 in Cuba at the beginning of the year added to a reality of crisis, a health situation that was already complex, even for countries with strong economies, in many of which it put its health systems in check. The disease entered the island and added to a complex scenario characterized by a shortage of medicines, food and a variety of necessities. In this same more sharpened context we continue, with the addition in these final months of the year, of the discontent expressed by some sectors of the population, especially intellectual, so that the Cuban State recognizes the right of citizens to dissent and freedom of expression.
By the way, Palabra Nueva spoke with Msgr. Emilio Aranguren Echeverría, President of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba (COCC) and Bishop of the Diocese of Holguin.
How has the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba experienced this time of necessary gathering because of covid-19?
“As soon as the World Health Organization (WHO) categorized covid-19 as a ‘pandemic’ and the Ministry of Public Health in Cuba reported the first cases in the country, the bishops published a simple message about how we should act. Therefore, we indicated that temples remained open (with proper health measures) and that priests celebrate Mass at a certain time in the company of the nearest collaborators, proper a private liturgy due to movement restrictions to promote isolation. In turn, the public invitation went to stay home and we encouraged him to do so to take care of us and take care of others.”
How has the Cuban Church been able to continue its mission and stand with those most in need during the pandemic? What actions in particular have been carried out without violent targeted epidemiological measures?
“The Church as the People of God in the midst of the people of which we are a part1 maintains its own serenity that springs from the experience of faith (‘Even if I walk through dark glens, I fear nothing, for the Lord goes with me,’ Psalm 23.4).
“This serenity we tried to convey in the radio messages that bishops had during the social isolation stage (April-June), including the days of Holy Week. Likewise, the Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba at the Mass celebrated in the dressing room of our Lady of Charity in El Cobre and televised in early Sunday hours wanted to accompany the faithful in this time of obligatory re-gathering. Many parish priests created WhatsApp groups among community members who access mobile data. For their part, a good number of priests and deaconos, as well as lay extraordinary ministers of Communion, kept visiting those most in need and with equal willingness to receive them, although sometimes relatives avoided this type of encounter because of vulnerability in the case of the elderly or chronically ill.
“The simplicity of the Cuban expresses a way of being that, in turn, encloses the germ of what we call the ‘Cuban Christian soul’. So at times like these some proverbs come up, such as, ‘Who’s your brother? Your nearest neighbor’; ‘One hand washes the other and the two wash their faces’; ‘With a lot of little bit it gets a lot done,’ and that’s where the initiatives come from, the spontaneous and generous gestures. That is, it has been days when it has been evident that, thank God, remains in the heart of the village, since a good number of communities with canteens (for breakfast and / or lunch) maintained the service through messengers. All this, in addition to other initiatives carried out by priests, religious and laity, which in many cases entails their personal generosity, not only because of the action they take but because they detach themselves from what they need. Something similar has also been given with the fraternal support of rural communities to urban communities, since in the environment of the former it is closer to the agricultural products that favor eating with food, fruits and vegetables.
“Still (on this date) attention has not yet been restarted for groups receiving this type of service, not only because of compliance with health measures, but because of food shortages and limitations on their procurement and that of other essential products. Similarly, those who remain in health institutions (hospitals, nursing homes, special schools), except for specific sacramental or spiritual comfort actions, by priests or a specially authorized visit, cannot yet be visited – because of existing health measures.
While the capital remained quarantined, the rest of the country’s dioceses, including the special municipality Isla de la Juventud, moved on to the first phase. He then recoiled Ciego de Avila, Sancti Spíritus and in the last days Pinar del Río. How was the return to normality handled from one part of our Church and not from another? Did this create any problems or confusions? Was there any guidance from the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba or did the decisions correspond to each bishop in his diocese?
“The Episcopal Conference, as such, shares common criteria that, according to the opinion of each bishop with their respective Councils, are adapted to their concrete reality (it happens the same when there are dioceses affected by the passage of a hurricane, while others do not). I don’t think there’s been any confusion. Perhaps the difference has been that, at the end of the first stage (end of June), it also concluded the possibility of access to radio and TV and, days later, when there were diocesan territories where the regrowth was experienced, they had the Sunday program again.
“The summer months (July and August) which, in turn, are school holidays, usually serve for vicarial and diocesan events in the pastoral care of adolescents and young people, as well as in other lay groups (Summer Schools of Educators, priestly coexistences, pilgrimages, etc.). This year, other types of communication were suspended and encouraged to the extent of the participants’ possibilities.2 Similarly, over the past few months, bishops have had two assemblies: one in July and one in November.
“A good number of parish priests and other pastoral workers have used the phone for the call to the faithful, as well as ringing the bells at an hour of the day to make a prayer network, etc.
“Properly, the beginning of the Ninth Preparatory to the Feast of our Lady of Charity was, in the dioceses of the east of the country, the beginning of the pastoral year and, therefore, of children’s catechesis, youth groups, Christian initiation, as well as the actions of daily pastoral care: regular hours of celebrations, patron saint festivities, confirmations, etc. In Sunday celebrations some elderly people who do not participate in them are missed and, therefore, there are parish priests who have requested new appointments for the Extraordinary Ministry of Communion, so that these brothers and sisters can receive it in their homes.”
Many people, mostly Catholics, felt much the end of the bishops’ radio allocutions, as well as the transmission of Sunday Mass from El Cobre. They believed some that these spaces would be maintained after quarantine. What can you say about it?
“Coincidentally the Christmas Festival is approaching in this year 2020 and I remember with gratitude the experience of Christmas 1995 (twenty-five years ago!), when as Bishop of Cienfuegos, the diocesan animator of the Union of the Sick Missionaries (EMU) suggested that I convey a radio message addressed to the sick who did not have the possibility of participating in community celebrations. On that occasion, the formalities were done at the Office of Attention to Religious Affairs, and permission was granted. Since then, the bishops have accessed the radio three times in the year: Christmas, Easter and Feast of the Virgin of Charity. To this it has been added that the Archbishop of Havana presides over a Christmas Concert in the Cathedral, as well as the Sermon of the Seven Words in Holy Week, and both are broadcast in a deferred way on National TV; like the Mass presided over by the Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba in the Basilica-Sanctuary of our Lady of Charity in El Cobre on September 8.
“Bishops maintain the request to have a systematic presence in the media and, I hope, that this same experience on the occasion of covid-19, which has been described (by Catholics, brothers of other denominations and, even non-believers) as very good, will enable a positive response, especially since, even if social networks transmit religious messages, there is a high percentage of the population that only accesses radio and television and feels the need to listen to such language (content, tone, signs, prayers, readings, songs).”
At the beginning of the pandemic, while our bishops approached the faithful to make known the necessary orientations, from various scenarios they have been asked to pronounce in correspondence with the difficult reality that Cuba now lives. To what does this silence of the Cuban bishops respond when so claimed has been their voice?
“Today, almost all of us in the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba were young priests when we held the Cuban National Ecclesial Meeting (ENEC, 1986). In this event, Cardinal Pironio participated as envoy of Pope St. John Paul II, and he defined the ENEC ‘as a Cuban Pentecost’. Twenty-five years had passed since the expression of faith (1961) was privatized and were therefore years in which, within communities, the smoking wick (or wick) of faith was kept on, as Scripture says. At that stage we had received priestly formation at the San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary in Havana and, it was, as of December 3, 1970 (the 50th anniversary will be celebrated) that new Cuban priests began to be ordained to support the dwindle priestly presence scattered through the then six existing dioceses in the country.
“There are still three things left of the ENEC today: the spirit, the ecclesial keys (praying, incarnate and missionary Church) and the final document. It was five years of preparation (post-Puebla, 1979), in what we call the Cuban Ecclesial Reflection (REC). As a result of this significant synodality we read in n. 126: ‘The Catholic Church in Cuba has made a clear choice for seriousness and serenity in the treatment of issues, for direct and frank dialogue with the authorities of the nation, for the non-use of statements that can serve propaganda in one sense or another and for maintaining a double and demanding fidelity : the Church and the Fatherland. This is partly due to the silence, which has certainly not been total, of the Church, both in Cuba and facing the Continent, in the last twenty-five years.’
“Even, to the freshness of Pope Francis’ recent Encyclical Fratelli tutti, we can also read No. 203, with a message in the same line that is very topical.
“I think, among other reasons, it also locks up something proper generational. In our case we look at the priests, religious life and young Catholics who make this claim, either in personal conversations and pastoral encounters or, in the latter cases, publicly using social networks. But the same is true in other areas, such as university, sports, cultural (artists, writers, musicians), economics, etc.
“On our part, both as an Episcopal Conference, as well as each of its members in their respective dioceses, we deal with our interlocutors those situations in which we consider providing our opinion or, also, some specific behavior.”
What conclusion do you draw from this whole stage of gathering? Looking ahead to tomorrow, how does the future post-pandemic live up? How do you get ready to live this stage of “new normality”?
“I hope, as Pope Francis repeats, that after passing this long moment of pandemic, the world has learned a lesson. I go to another proverb: ‘The blows teach.’ And, also among us, as a people and as a Church. When the Pope addressed young people on his 2015 visit, he referred to what he called ‘social friendship’. And now, so it subtitles the published encyclical and, in one way or another, develops this theme on a par with the call to fraternity. It is not worth it that we are ‘connected’, since it is a virtual encounter, we must aspire to live ‘united’ and insist on the so-called culture of encounter. Among all of us we build the common good and, among all, we are called to bring our concerns, thoughts, gifts… so that we can speak in ‘we’ and, little by little, leave behind sad experiences lived from a sectarian mentality in which we speak in terms of ‘they and us’, ‘those here and there’, ‘believers and non-believers’.
“Just as Aparecida (2007) insisted on pastoral conversion, and Pope Francis resumed it in Evangelii Gaudium, the pandemic must make us all discover the need we have for a ‘social conversion’ and, undoubtedly, the Social Doctrine of the Church provides us with a support to enlighten, from our faith and witness of life, what we are called to share as a contribution for the good of all. The fact that, since last year, the Constitution of the Republic of Cuba has reaffirmed the concept of ‘lay state’ is a door that opens to continue walking in this desire and with this projection. I don’t see it as utopia, but with hope.”
As a Church, we are ready to live a new time, a time of joy because God is born, he has become man to dwell among us. Beyond this crisis for the survival of the Cuban people and that latent desire for respect for the right to dissent and freedom of expression, what can this Christian event call? What message can this Christmas contain for Cuba and the Cubans?
“Several months ago, a university professor interviewed me in relation to the presence of the Christian faith in Cuban Christmas traditions, or in the Christmas traditions of our people. Therefore, ‘there was cloth to cut from’. A Colombian priest (now deceased) who served a missionary among us for a good number of years, said that he had never seen a song of carols with such beautiful lyrics settled in the Gospel and in the Christian message, and with melodies as typical of this culture, as I had been found in Cuba; and all accompanied by guitar, goiro, keys, percussion, maracas, without having to borrow from other peoples or other cultures.
“In the Cuban Christmas tradition you don’t have to start by talking about the meals of those days until the end of the year and arriving at the Day of the Kings. Christmas Eve Dinner was the reason for re-joining the family (highlight the script). Around the table were all re-joined: the elderly, adults, young people and children, those who had joined as daughters-in-law or weeds, even, in some cases, accompanied by their parents ‘so that they would not be left alone’. And on that Holy Night, without reading what the Letter to the Ephesians teaches (2.13 and ss.) we all experience ‘the peace of the heart’. Christmas does not speak of what distances or divides, but of what brings about and unies, prejudices are left behind and mutual kindness and trust stand out. God’s goodness is dusted into our hearts. When I hear José Martí quote that he said, ‘I believe in human improvement,’ I personally consider this to be an expression rooted in the Cuban Christian soul, and this germful presence is reborn in many of us as we celebrate Christmas as a Mystery of Faith, when Jesus Christ, the Son of God, becomes one of us, the Enmanuel, the only Savior.
“In addition, from the third Sunday of Advent there is already Christmas weather in temples and mission houses, as well as in many homes (increasingly, compared to decades past) and, especially, we hear the rehearsal of choirs and Christmas performances, the preparation and celebration of the Ninth, the visit with the images of the Birth (or Bethlehem) to the wards where small communities meet. Why not update what Isaiah prophesied: ‘To a people who lived in darkness, a light shone them’ (Is 9.2)?, and in the same way, we must be the messengers who repeat what the angels announced to the shepherds: ‘Fear not, for we bring you good news that will be a source of great joy for all the people: Today a savior was born to them in the people of David, who is the Messiah, the Lord’ (Lk 2:10-12). The announcement is in place and, in this year, even more so that, with this confidence, start 2021 with renewed hope! Ω
1 “They are in the world, but they are not of the world, I ask thee to take them out of the world, but to preserve them from the Evil One and consecrate them in truth” (cf. Jn 17:14-18). It is also expressed by Jesus in his three comparisons in relation to salt, light, and yeast.
2 There is usually no ordinary possibility for videoconferencing.