“A life between two lights”- Interview Fray Manuel Uña Fernández, OP

Por sor Indira González Shoda, S. de M.

fray Manuel Uña Fernández

Father Manuel Uña was born in 1935, in a town in Castilla la Vieja, and took the religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in the Order of Preachers (Dominicos) in 1953 in Granada, Spain, and was ordained a priest on March 15, 1959, at only twenty-three years old. He served as a Dominican in various places in Spain: from parish priest in the working-class suburbs where there were people who had never lived in a house, to provincial superior. I visited Cuba for the first time in February 1986, and stayed to work permanently in October 1993 “under a blackout”, remember, “the first thing I was given was a linternite, which is a symbol, because it serves to illuminate, not to dazzle…”. In Cuba, he has been superior of the community that founded in 1995 the Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Classroom and, later, the Training Center of the same name, which operate in the convent San Juan de Letrán, in 19 and H in El Vedado.

Father Manuel, you have accompanied the Cuban people at very significant times. Tell us about this experience as a Dominican in Cuba.
“I came to Cuba for the first time in 1986, it was a provincial of the Dominicans of the former province of Bética (Andalusia). Each year, throughout the two provincialates, he visited the island to be with the brothers and collaborate as much as possible. I remember when I first came, Archbishop Prego, Bishop of Santa Clara, told me about the corrections I was making to the final document of the Cuban National Ecclesial Meeting (ENEC). In Seville much Archbishop Carlos Amigo had told me about this event, because he had been present and returned euphoric. At the end of lunch and say goodbye, he said something like this: ‘You’re going to a town that talks clapping.’
“I was very excited to read that document, and as soon as I arrived I looked for it by all means. Reading, for the purpose of knowing, was for me a necessity that became passion; and in Cuba, the first step. I remember that I started with the pastoral letter of the Cuban Catholic Bishops El Amor all waiting for, the documents of the ENEC, some works by José Martí, as well as our admired poets Dulce María Loynaz and Eliseo Diego, otherwise dear neighbors of Lateran.
“Already in Cuba there was an expression of popular use that then caught my attention, the ‘just in case’. Through these methods I learned to see Cuban reality, and the more I knew it, I realized my transit from wanting to learn to discovering in me the need to let myself be taught by reality. The most important thing in this time has been to let me teach.
“In the opening address, Msgr. Adolfo, President of the Episcopal Conference, wrote: ‘The ENEC is not an end but a new beginning. He wants to be prophetic, suggestive and programmatic, looking long-term… Nothing in this life is to this day and from today: life is weeded in footsteps and the ENEC also… The only thing the ENEC can do is fulfill what the Lord taught: To walk today’s and tomorrow’s way today, without pretending to see the whole way.'”

He tells us about a few years when Cuba was difficult to access as a religious and foreigner…
“On my last visit to the island in February 1993, I met with Dr. José Felipe Carneado, head at the time of the Office of Religious Affairs of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba. I had developed a good relationship with him and talked to him, ‘I just spoke to Monsignor Faustino, to which I expressed my desire to come to Cuba at the end of my service as a provincial.’ Smiling, he told me about the bad moment for me chosen, for the special period began, with many deficiencies in all fields. I also gave him back a smile, while handing him a letter with the petition and saying, ‘I’m coming, but it’s God who brings me here, so I’ll tell the new provincial to get elected.’ I returned in October of that same year and unfortunately Carneado had already passed away, but my letter had remained in the office.

“I am still deeply grateful to those who made it possible for me to enter on October 15, 1993. The journey did not make me too long because, as I mentioned, I came reading and taking notes on the message published by the Bishops of Cuba Love awaits everything (September 8, 1993), since it seemed to me an illuminated document for the moment that Cuba was living: ‘It is necessary that open to reality we sincerely seek the truth with a heart ready for understanding and dialogue. A frank, creative, free dialogue… A dialogue that goes through mercy, amnesty, reconciliation, as the Lord wants.’
fray Manuel Uña Fernández

“I remember that when we arrived we were in blackout, in the middle of the special period, and the young people gave me a linternite, which I keep as a sacramental, while they said to me, ‘Father, this does not illuminate much but serves to enlighten.’ In these twenty-five years of stay in Cuba I have seen a people walk with the illusion of being formed, paraphrasing Martí, in ‘a republic with all and for the good of all’.
“Indeed, several have been the moments that have touched me to live with this people and who have opened the doors to a better future; moments that have served to the expression of that natural affection and affection of Cubans.”

And in the midst of these years, the visit of Pope John Paul II…
“Pope John Paul II’s visit to the island and the Aula Magna of the University of Havana in 1998, as a ‘messenger of truth and hope’, was a momentous fact that energized the feeling of Cubans. This had been preceded by three years of preparation in which the Church did a great evangelizing work around three fundamental questions: Who is Mary? Who is Jesus? Who’s the pope? The answers allowed the people to meet the Church, who had thrown themselves into the streets knocking on door by door so that no Cuban would remain without being summoned to meet Jesus and the Pope. Eighty-six were the laity of our community who collaborated in this work. It was a new, unthinking, surprising moment…
“The message of His Holiness in every place where He was was certainly a stimulus for the whole nation. His visit to the University of Havana touched dominicans in Cuba very closely; I was there, contemplating the coat of arms of the University and our Order, which has remained to this day. In his speech the Pope told us, ‘Remember that the torch that appears on the shield of this study house is not only a memory of a past but also a project.’ When I arrived, they put me in the front row, and when I asked to be put further back, the head of protocol put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Father Manuel, weren’t the Dominicans the founders of the University? You stay there, it’s your place for history, on your left will be the Episcopal Conference and on the right the president of the government.’ At the end of the meeting, the Pope stopped to say hello.
“The Message of the Supreme Pontiff to Cubans opened the door to dialogue and reconciliation, peace and harmony. ‘ Cuba, take care of your family to keep your heart healthy,’ such was the Pope’s call. On the other hand, ‘that the world be opened to Cuba and that Cuba will open up the world’ pointed to the beginning of a new path. It was the openness of mind and heart for God to enter our lives and make us more human and better Christians.
“Another important event at this time has been the preparation and journey of our Lady of Charity (Mambisa) throughout the island: ‘Jesus for Mary. Charity unies us.’ That is, the way to reach Jesus is through his mother. Our Lady of Charity is not only a symbol of religiosity in this nation, it is also a sign of unity, encounter and dialogue; Cubans, before our Lady of Charity, feel children of the same mother, believers and non-believers came together in communion to receive Our Lady in every corner of the country. The tour of the image laid the foundations for the arrival in Havana of Pope Benedict XVI, who arrived in Cuba as a ‘pilgrim of Charity’.
“Cuba is one of the few countries that has had the joy of being visited by the last three pontiffs. They have been significant visits to the nation, something new is being born in this homeland that the Popes have wanted to accompany us. Pope Francis’s visit, as a ‘missionary of mercy’, at Mass celebrated in Revolution Square, reminded all Cubans ‘that those who do not live to serve do not serve, do not serve to live’.
“The path that began in Cuba has been dialogue, so I would like to highlight as momentous the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States. Dialogue makes it possible to start the path of encounter, peace and harmony; a first step has been taken for both nations. President Barack Obama’s visit to Havana alongside this process of talks and restoring relations has awakened in Cubans another sensitivity and enthusiasm for the future. My mission as a preaching friar has been to know how to listen and accompany Cubans to keep hope alive, and to provide spaces for dialogue that allow reflection for together to build bridges that come closer.”

How can you define your life?
“My life in Cuba, in this beloved homeland, has been a life between two lights. One light is the community of Lateran, where I have lived, and the other light is the people I have met. Living and finding articulate the same story, we live to find and find living. Coming to Cuba has been a gift from God, which was confirmed especially nine years ago, when I was able to celebrate my fifty years as a priest, with the community of St. John lateran and I found the temple full of believers, and others who claim not to believe but who are credible. At that moment I could perceive that this people, to which I love so much and which I have accompanied, celebrated with me fidelity to my ministry, which has been an immeasurable sign of the affection of the Cubans. I never thought about what Cuba was going to give me.”

Sometimes religious life is in danger of diluting its specific charism and mission. In Cuba the Dominicans have bet to adapt reality to the charism and not the other way around, as the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Center shows us. Tell us about how this project emerges.
“‘Charisma is not a relic to keep in the reliquary.’ This criterion makes us aware of the need to understand what are the new paths of inculturation of the charism; not as a reproduction of the past but as a full rooting in the origin, which has to adapt to the conditions of the moment we live and that serves to ‘season’ and give flavor to what we do…
“The Order of Preachers to which I belong has a reason to be in this world: ‘The proclamation of the Good News to all men.’ The friars in Cuba have had this very clear ideal since their arrival on the island with the discovery of America and what we are trying to do today is to stay true to that Dominican ideal wherever we are. The Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Center and Classroom respond to our ideal adjusted to the current conditions of society and to the new ways of serving in the promotion of the human person. We believe that the truth ‘tell it whoever says it and wherever it comes from comes from the Holy Ghost’.
“Living in one’s own time forces us to have a true dialogue with man. Friar Bartholomew of the Houses, speaking of the first Dominican community in Hispaniola, has written that ‘those friars: seeing, looking and considering decided to make a commitment to dare to preach the sermon…’ A daring was to bet on our man and woman today. We bet on the people, for life, because ‘opening paths of life is more important than condemning ways of death’. The Center and the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Classroom was a dream come true. The Dominican friars of Havana had a dream at one of our community gatherings that we held every Tuesday morning. Unforgettable was that of February 1994 in which, like any Tuesday, we found ourselves to pray, reflect, ask and ask ourselves. That’s what makes a community called Dominican.
“Letan has been a community on the way, which has been discovering the ‘richness of the poverty of not knowing’ and has felt forced to ask. That near-spring morning the community reflected on what it was and what it was doing at that time that Cuba lived and suddenly the first question arose, the big question of the meeting: ‘What we do responds to who we are,’ can we do something we don’t do, even if it means having to leave something we’re doing?…’. Here we stayed that morning. We feel the need to pray, discern, and make some decision. This is how the need to create a space of encounter, reflection and reconciliation was born: the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Classroom.
“After a few days, we decided to share it with our Archbishop, Archbishop Jaime Ortega, who encouraged us from the beginning, and with Msgr. Beniamino Stella, apostolic nuncio in Cuba, to finally make the decision to open the Classroom. Again we asked ourselves, ‘For whom?’ and the answer came by unanimous acclaim: ‘For all’, since Jesus of Nazareth did not exclude anyone. The brothers then asked me to coordinate the project that was being born and I, who had only been in Cuba for a few months and did not know cuban reality, met on the way with lucid and faithful people who guided me on what should be the philosophy of our dream ‘to recreate and not repeat’. Thus was born the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Classroom and on March 30 Msgr. Stella gave the first lecture: ‘In the Advent of the Third Millennium’.

“After the visit of John Paul II, in which he proclaimed ‘that the world be opened to Cuba and that Cuba be opened to the world’, we asked ourselves again in community: ‘Can we offer anything else?’ We had the basements of the convent, closed since its foundation in 1916, without light and life… and the community had the courage to open them to light. It was September 1998.
“The Center and the Classroom are a platform of formation and culture, but above all of dialogue with the university world and with anyone who loves and seeks the truth. In this way, the Dominicans in Cuba try to practice the service of accompanying the people from a ministry of truth, that is, we accompany the needs of our people for intellectual growth, to be able to answer the questions that new times ask us, we try to create spaces of admission and dialogue with those who think differently both politically, religiously , as socially. We are committed to a new horizon that opens spaces for a better society that includes everyone and where everyone can be partakers and creators of their own destiny. I remember St Augustine ‘man without God cannot; but God without man does not work.’ Human work, wanting to do and doing well, involves exercising in the wisdom of these four maxims that in our language begin with the same consonant: ‘Providence, Prudence, Patience and Presence (closeness)’. In them is the key to the road.”

What is the microclimate of Lateran?
“In 2012, in Puebla de los Angeles (Mexico), young people with Down syndrome gave me a very original gift: a painting with different colors entitled The perfect square, where the sum of the differences makes a whole. I’ve had it in my office ever since, and I think that’s Lateran. When we refer to the microclimate of Lateran we are talking about the convergence of four spaces of preaching, distinct from each other, but complementary in their objectives. On the one hand, the Conference Classroom, on the other the Center for Studies, the library-fonoteca Santo Tomás de Aquino and finally the convent and the temple. Indeed, this causes Lateran to generate its own microclimate. The harmony of our cloisters combines dialogue and study, reflection and prayer. Its particular microclimate offers a respectful and warm welcome, closeness and demand when learning, contrasts of criteria and different points of view. His philosophy consists in the promotion of the human person through formation in values.
“In Lateran there is no late arrival, this also allows a climate of respect among all, which is generated in the passion for study and the search for truth, the desire to know and the genesis of an authentic thought, typical of Cuban identity. Lateran has become, as Msgr. Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, once said, in Casa Cuba, a place that opens its doors to all Cubans of goodwill, an ecosystem, a polyphony of voices that sings to hope creating paths, building bridges, looking with long light at a better future for the nation and with short light to discover the richness of the new that is sprouting. It is this way of thinking that has made Lateran a reference point on and off the island.
“It is a joy for me, after all these years (we are celebrating the twenties of his foundation), to see a project continue on its way, a project whose rector is a Cuban friar and also Cuban is the staff that participates fully in it. My life is past, the future does not belong to me, it belongs to young people, who with enthusiasm begin another moment, neither better nor worse, only different. We have done what we had to do and we have been God’s instrument, but this is another time with which we must merge.
“At the moment, the Center has students enrolled in the different courses offered: from languages, Graphic Design, Advertising Marketing, Microsoft Office 2010, Photoshop and Flash CS5 to diplomas in Philosophy, Theology, Humanism and Society. We also work on the Integral Adolescent Training (FIA) project. I think there’s a lot to work on in Cuba, but I remember Martí in this: ‘when there’s a lot to do, you have to be careful not to do much.'”

Those of us who know him can define him as faithful, happy and fruitful Dominican. What paths must today’s religious life go through in order to truly be meaningful, faithful, happy, and fruitful? In what ways do you emphasize to mature as human and consecrated persons?
“Religious life in Cuba is a seed that is scattered throughout all corners of the island, many and very varied are the congregations that have come to carry out their evangelizing and missionary work. It is interesting that in towns far removed from the big cities they are religious providing significant service, which shows us that religious in Cuba have made an option to be on the peripheries, as Pope Francis asks us. I think it’s important for us to put in this perspective.
“Religious life in Cuba is called to make a path of evangelization and accompaniment to the people, this means landing, observing and listening greatly to the feeling, being and making of Cubans, and then trying to present the gospel in such a way that it can be welcomed. I insist that it takes time and a lot of listening skills, it is impossible to do things in a hurry. It takes closeness, patience, tolerance, dialogue, reflection and all this is a process that will help us discern what is the best we can offer our people.
“There is then a triple fidelity: fidelity to Jesus Christ, professed in the experience of religious vows, fidelity to the charism of the institution and fidelity to the people where we live. Being true to this call is a path of coherence. People in Cuba value consecrated persons and the call is that we be witnesses of the gospel.
“‘By their fruit you shall know them.’ The fruits of consecrated persons in Cuba will come in proportion to the credible witness that we religious and the Church all give. I believe that a poem by Dulce María Loynaz can express my feeling as a Dominican religious in Cuba: ‘Just by nailing yourself in the shade, sucking drop by drop the living juice of the shadow, you can do it up, noble and lasting work. Grato is the air, pleasant light; but you can’t be every flower…, and the one who doesn’t put the soul in the root, dries up.’
“In Cuba we must put the soul at the root, but with a deep root, convinced that the work is of God and that in time it will bear fruit.
“Fertility faces a path of preparation, it is the path where the religious give everything and forgets about himself because his raison d’e her raison d’e her being is the other, it is the way where you go one with others and then you begin to know and discover people. Those who are foreigners like me know perfectly well the value of finding people in a country other than one’s. The encounter with the different in foreign land helps us discover the riches, cultures and traditions of a society. He who is different from me enriches me with his light, because he invites me to be part of his identity, of his space.
“I, when I think of St John of Lateran, I am sorry to turn to my memory one of the verses of Elisha Diego, which with a synthetic expression of Creole finesse serves me to refer to this site of Vedado as one in which, certainly, ‘so well is’. In which I have been so well and I am still, and in which so well they feel and so well are the students and teachers of the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Center.” Ω

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