The National Shrine of San Lázaro is the second in importance of Cuba, after the Basilica-Sanctuary of Our Lady of Charity of Copper. With about 1,500 faithful a day, it can reach about 35,000 on a weekend (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) of December, not counting that from the opening of the temple at 7:30 a.m. on December 16 to 10:30 p.m. on the 17th, when its titular saint is celebrated, it can reach 90,000 pilgrims.
To talk about this Sanctuary, Palabra Nueva approaches the priest Elixander Torres Pérez, who has been its rector since August 4, 2017.
What does Practising Cuban Catholics and those believing brothers who enter this group called “popular piety” believe in?
“To answer this question, first of all I must say that, although it is difficult for some to believe, there are several saints with the name ‘Lazarus’ in the history of Christianity, both Western and Eastern, who are inspired by two main sources: Saint Lazarus, ‘the Bishop’ and St Lazarus ‘the beggar’, devotions that have intermingled since very ancient times. Therefore, we need to know, albeit briefly, some of these holy men who shared both name and faith.
“Saint Lazarus ‘of Bethany’ was the ‘of Jesus’ and ‘brother of Martha and Mary’, the ‘return to life’. Part of its history is contained in the New Testament. He’s contemporary with Jesus. In pseudoclementine traditions it is said that he accompanied St. Peter to Syria. In the East it is said that he arrived in Cyprus, and that he was Bishop of Kittion (Larnaca) consecrated by St Paul and St Barnabas during the first apostolic journey of the ‘Apostle of the Gentiles,1 which occurred around 40 a.C. (Acts 13:7-12). There are much of his relics. As early as the 3rd century it was venerated throughout the Church. His feast is celebrated on 29 July in the Roman Catholic Church, according to the Roman Martyrdom, together with his sisters Martha and Mary2 of Bethany.3 Other traditions mark its celebration on 17 December.
“Another Saint Lazarus, ‘the beggar’, is also a biblical character, apparently contemporary with Christ. What we know of him is found in the Gospel according to Luke (Lk 16:19-31). Lazarus, poor, appears here as the protagonist of a narrative that is different from the others made by Jesus himself. Narration that, according to the biblists, is a midrash,4 not a simple parable or story already known to the Jews,5 as has often been said. Around the world there are stained glass windows, frescoes, carvings and prayers, which tell us about the veneration of this biblical character, always linked to leprosy and hospitals, because he suffered from a skin disease, probably leprosy. His worship, so far, remains ambiguity, that is, between what is permitted by the Christian secular (and ecclesiastical) tradition and the reluctance to celebrate it. In addition to crutches and dogs, its other attributes are: a bag or zurrón to collect alms, and a bell or matraca. The growing devotion to St Lazarus, ‘the beggar’, and the multiplicity of graces granted through his intercession confirms the faith of his devotees. Its festival is celebrated on December 17th in Cuba and in various places around the world.
“Saint Lazarus ‘Zographos’ (Zorográfos) was a monk who lived in Constantinople (present-day Turkey) in the 3rd century A.C. His party is celebrated on March 14.
“Saint Lazarus ‘of Marseille’ refers to the same person as the ‘Bishop of Aix-en-Provence’ and the ‘Bishop of Autun’, the three places in France. For a long time it was thought that this ‘Lazarus’ was ‘the friend of the Lord’, yet it is known for sure that all part of a confusion because of his name. Lazarus was the first verifiable bishop of the French diocese of Aix-en-Provence, France. His bishopric was granted to him by Emperor Constantine III (usurpador of the throne) in 408 a.C. When Emperor Constantus II regained the imperial throne in 411, Lazarus of Aix was withdrawn from his bishopric, so he left for the Holy Land. He returned to France and settled in the city of Marseille, where he died on 3 August 441 (v century D.C.). Some of his relics are preserved in the Abbey of St. Victor of Marseille, where there is also his epitaph. Other relics of his are located in the Cathedral of Autun, which is dedicated to him. Although not canonized by the Catholic Church, french tradition marks its feast on 23 February.
“Saint Lazarus ‘of Persia’ lived in the year 326 (4th century A.C.). His party is celebrated on March 27.
“St. Lazarus ‘of Kyoto’ (Japan), also from the 4th century A.C, died a martyr. His party is celebrated on September 28th.
“St. Lazarus ‘Jrebeljánovic’ or ‘St. Lazarus of Serbia’ was king of Serbia. He lived in the 4th century A.C. His feast is celebrated on 28 June for the Serbian Orthodox Church.
“Saint Lazarus ‘of Milan’ was one of the bishops of the Diocese of Milan, lived in the 5th century A.C. His party is celebrated on February 11.
“St. Lazarus ‘of Constantinople’ was born in Georgia in the ninth century.C,” he was a monk, called him ‘the iconographer’. His party is celebrated on November 17.
“St. Lazarus, ‘Stylist’ lived in the 11th century A.C. on Mount Gelasio in Ephesus, Turkey, was a holy hermit. His party is celebrated on November 7.
“After having these references, it is immediately apparent that the two “saints” to whom the Catholic devotion and popular religiosity of our people are addressed are the first two: Saint Lazarus, ‘the brother of Martha and Mary of Bethany’ or the ‘Bishop’; and Saint Lazarus, ‘the poor one’, ‘the beggar’, ‘the leper'”.
So, St Lazarus, “the friend of Jesus”, was he not bishop of Marseille?
“This is a very difficult subject to address, because it touches on the sensitivity of many believers. Saint Lazarus, known as ‘the friend of Jesus’ or ‘the one brought back to life’, according to the most modern research, was probably born in Bethany (Hebrew: ‘House of Pain’), a small village located in the eastern foothills of Mount Olives relatively close to Jerusalem. He’s contemporary with Christ. His name in Hebrew, Eleazar means: ‘God helps’. She had two sisters: Martha and Mary of Bethany. Jesus was a great friend of this family. In fact, he stayed at home at least three times (Mt 21.17; Mc 11.1; Lk 10.38; Jn 11.1). He is very famous, mainly, because he was brought back to life by Jesus, as recorded in the Gospel according to John (Jn 11:41-44). From this story, its name is frequently used as a synonym for ‘resurrection’. Outside of the biblical data, there was a kind of silence about his life and his ‘second death’.
“But in the 8th century A..C D., around 774 A..C D., the venerable John, Bishop of Euboea (Greek island), in one of his homilies gives us clues about the last days in the land of this saint. He claims that, after the murder of the deacon St. Stephen (34 d.C.) (Acts 7.54-60), Lazarus realized that the next victim would be him, for he preached the resurrection of Christ. For this reason, he fled with his sisters to southern Cyprus where he continued his preaching. There he was consecrated as Bishop of Kittion (Larnaca), around 48 a.m. .C by the Holy Apostles Paul and Barnabas. Saint Lazarus was bishop for approximately thirty years until his death, around 80 .C.
“This story, which would seem like a legend, was largely confirmed in 900, when Emperor Leo VI, ‘the philosopher’ brought to Constantinople the relics of the saint that were preserved in Kittion in exchange for building there a magnificent cathedral in honor of St Lazarus. The event of the transfer of the holy relics is recorded in the ‘Synaxary Constantinopolitan’6 on 17 October (transfer from Cyprus to Constantinople) and 4 May (deposition in the Constantinopolitan monastery of St. Lazarus). The relics were brought from Constantinople to Rome by the Crusaders in 1204, then moved to Milan and finally brought to France as spoils of war. They were deposited in the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, from where they disappeared during looting in the midst of the French Revolution.
“Most likely the Cypriots did not surrender all of the relics, but deposited the skull and some of the saint’s bones in a wooden urn and placed it in the ancient tomb of the saint, while handing the rest over to the emperor. This story was laid bare when in 1970 the Cathedral of Agios Lázaros suffered a very serious fire that affected much of the interior, including the iconostase. He restored the church in the following years, when relics of St. Lazarus were found, inside a wooden box, deposited in a marble tomb engraved with the title: ‘Lazarus of the four days. The Friend of the Lord.’
“It was long thought that St Lazarus ‘of Marseille’ was the ‘friend of the Lord’, yet today it is known for sure that all part of a confusion because of his name. Therefore, St Lazarus ‘the friend of the Lord’ was not ‘Bishop of Marseille’, but of Cyprus. Nor can we assure that a martyr died, for there is no firm witness to it.
“The feast of Saint Lazarus, the friend of the Lord Jesus, is celebrated today in the Roman Catholic Church on July 29th (with his sisters Martha and Mary of Bethany). It is also celebrated the Sunday before Palm Sunday, that is, the Fifth Sunday of Lent, known in the West as the ‘Sunday of Lazarus’. In the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches and the Orthodox Church it is celebrated the Saturday before Palm Sunday, known as ‘Saturday of Lazarus’. During the centuries there have been other dates to commemorate Saint Lazarus. For example, Adon, Bishop of Vienna (ninth century AD.C.) in his Martyrage points to the feast of St Lazarus on 17 December, from there he passed to the Martyrrologio of Usuardo (ninth century AD.C.) and, from this, to the Roman Martyrdom. In some specific places it is celebrated another day, for example, in Tournai (France) it is celebrated on 5 December, while in Toulouse and Verdun (France) they celebrate it on 16 December”.
And St Lazarus, ‘the beggar’?
“What we know of Saint Lazarus, ‘the beggar’, is found in the Gospel according to Luke (Lk 16:19-31). Lazarus, poor, appears here as the protagonist of a narrative that is different from the others made by Jesus himself. First, because Jesus himself gives his main character his own name and talks about him as if his interlocutors knew him. Wouldn’t it be someone known for his holiness? Second, because it is Jesus who narrates the parable from beginning to end and does not explain its content as he used to do with all other narratives. Third, because there is an explicit reference to ‘sores’ and ‘dogs’, which will be an inseparable part of lazarina imagery. Fourth, because Jesus Himself gives certainty twice of Lazarus’ presence ‘in the Bosom of Abraham’, that is, in Heaven, and who receives ‘his comfort’ there, which makes him think of the so-called biblical doctrine ‘of retribution’. Fifth, it cannot fail to point out that the oldest traditions of the Church speak of him. There are icons, paintings and antique frescoes in catacombs and churches that represent it. Even in the funeral liturgy, frequent references are made to ‘Lazarus, poor in this world’. For this and other reasons, many theologians and biblists of the Church have come to think that Lazarus was a real man who lived in jesus’ time, known for the auditorium listening to him, who led a very difficult life, surrounded by misery and sickness, and from which Jesus himself claims that he was ‘taken to Heaven by the angels of God'”.
Why introduce Saint Lazarus with crutches and dogs?
“Some Catholic faithful have been astonished that the image of Saint Lazarus, the ‘beggar’ in our Sanctuary and in other churches is shown with the signs he had since once had and which at one point in our history were removed from them. Even the same image was clad and removed to the side of the temple. Returning the image to its original state means approaching all those who come to our Sanctuary seeking the mediation of the divine, whether or not the God, Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ as we profess it in the Catholic Church. It certainly means an approach to the religiosity and piety of our believing and simple people, even if there will always be old and new pastoral challenges and difficulties.
“On the other hand, other visitors to the National Shrine ask curiously: where is the image of Saint Lazarus? However, they do not know that both images correspond to the same saint, but traditional Cuban imagery prefers the ‘old’ to respond much better to the prompt death of the saint in the evangelical parable of Luke, on the one hand, and on the other hand, it is similar in religious syncretism to the orisha Babalú ayé (‘father of the world’) since the word: Babá means : ‘father’ or ‘old’. In fact, in Cuba, one of the nicknames of Saint Lazarus, the beggar, is ‘the old Lazarus’, or simply ‘the Elder'”.
What do we know about the image of this Saint Lazarus, ‘the beggar’, who is venerated in the Shrine?
“To this day we can safely state that this image came from the old hospital of San Lázaro that was located on the grounds that today occupies the Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital, former ‘caleta de Juan Guillén’ become ‘caleta de San Lázaro’ by the reservoir itself that gave name to the tower, the nearby quarries and the street that surrounded it. Everything seems to indicate that it was the ‘titular’ image of the church of this Habanero lazareto.7 It is a baroque image, richly decorated. The specialists in restoration and art history who have analyzed it ensure that it could come from both the Baroque School of Peru and the Baroque School of Seville. In the latter case I would share bewitching with the image of the holder of our archdiocese. It dates from the mid to late 17th or early 18th centuries, and has witnessed hundreds of thousands of pilgrims silent throughout the history of the Shrine.”
Aren’t you afraid of being with this exacerbating religious syncretism?
“Not at all. Covering the image with a cloak or paint so that the sores are not visible to him and remove the dogs, the cowbell, the bag and the cane would be like placing a green mantle in the image of St Barbara we know and removing the chalice, sword, crown and castle for fear of the syncretism of the Catholic faith with Afro-Cuban cults. The very image of the Child Jesus of Atocha (syncretized in Cuba with the orisha Eleguá) is another clear example of this. Should we suppress his staff? Should we remove her image from our temples, condemn her, satanize her? And now I’m going to say something a little loud. The Blessed Sacrament of the altar is regarded by Afro-Cuban syncretism as well as ‘the presence of God’ and as one of the ‘ways’ of the Obbatalá orisha. I wonder, should we stop celebrating Holy Mass or exposing the Blessed Sacrament for fear of syncretism?
“In my humble opinion, for I am neither theologian nor pastoralist, the pastoral question is not to ‘hide’, ‘change’ or worse, ‘mutilate’ the images as during the Byzantine iconoclasm of the 8th and 9th centuries a.C.d.8 we would be hereinating our history, our Catholic tradition. In addition, we would be closing for many – and perhaps forever – the entrance to that kind of ‘atrium of the Gentiles’ that represents popular piety, and even sincretism itself, for the Church. The nerve question is evangelization, the presentation of truths of faith without fear, but without hurting. In particular, we must teach that, within the range of Christian saints called Lazarus, there are two who occupy the faith of our people: Saint Lazarus ‘the Bishop’ and ‘Bishop of Cyprus’ if he refers to the ‘friend of Jesus’, ‘the resurrected dead on the fourth day’, the ‘brother of Martha and Mary of Bethany’; and St Lazarus ‘the poor’, ‘the beggar’, a controversial figure or not, but the truth is that he has been present in our Christian devotion since the end of the 2nd century A.C. And there’s concrete evidence of this. We must make it clear that neither are representations of the orisha Babalu ayé.
“Until now, sincretism itself, in its oral tradition, teaches that both the image of St Lazarus, the Bishop, and that of the poor beggar are representations of the various paths of Babalú ayé, also known as Shapkuana (for his gangrenous pustules) or Azojano (as sick with smallpox). The image of the Lazarus Bishop is called ‘the mighty’ because for the followers of santeria it is the image of the ‘king of Arará’ (Dahomey, Benin), the ‘purest way’; and that of the beggar, ‘the miraculous one’, because it resembles the description of the Nigerian Patagonian.”
Why “sack clothes” and purple?
“As a devotion to the person of the ‘poor Lazarus’, many pilgrims dress in ‘sack clothes’, and use ornaments or fabrics of ‘purple’ color (symbols both of penance), an inheritance – perhaps – of ancient Catholic penitential practices. In addition to the feast of Saint Lazarus coincides with the liturgical time of Advent, when the purple color predominates in the universal Church. But the feast of Saint Lazarus has been celebrated in different liturgical colours: white, of saint not martyr; red, of holy martyr; and lately the purple, emphasizing the liturgical time of Advent and the traditional clothing of the pilgrims who assimilated this color as the ‘own’ of St Lazarus, either for being celebrated in Advent or for imitating the bishop’s clothing. Today, we celebrate St Lazarus, both the ‘bishop’ and the ‘beggar’, in the white liturgical color, as well as any other saint of the Church”.
Why the exvotes and offerings?
“Bringing exvotos to shrines is a tradition that Christians have from the beginning of our faith. The rector before me created a Museum of the Exvotos to present to the faithful the material gestures of favors received by the intercession of St Lazarus, a museum that today has a new, broader headquarters for this purpose. The exvotos are thanks, reminders of miracles. They do what the saying goes: ‘It is good-born to be grateful.’ Pilgrims also bring as offerings wine and oil that remind us of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10.25-37), where the Samaritan heals the wounded Jew, cleans his wounds with wine and covers them with oil (symbols of joy and health). They also bring flowers, usually purple, and several exvotes, which show their deep inner gratitude. Candles, also abode, represent their desire to be ‘enlightened’ by God through the intercession of St Lazarus, and to remain in prayer in the temple, just as they remain and spend radiating their light.”
If St Lazarus, “the beggar”, does not appear in the Universal Calendar of the Church, why is it celebrated on 17 December?
“First of all, let us not forget that the name of Lazarus for the two biblical saints has led, from the beginning, that their stories and devotion have been mixed. So it is not uncommon for them to share a date of celebration, since neither of them has this date marked in the Roman Martyrdom. Actually, this is very curious and, at the same time, very interesting.
“Many of us wonder why the 17th of December in Cuba is celebrated on the ‘Day of Saint Lazarus’, referring to the beggar. More so, when neither the official calendars of the Church nor the modern Martyrdom refer to this day as the appointed date for celebrating this saint. However, if we delve into both liturgical history and the historiography of the Sanctuary, we may find an answer to our question. First, the ancient Roman Martyrdom points to the feast of Saint Lazarus, bishop (often identified with the poor beggar) on 17 December. Second, that since the 7th century, in Spain the Feast of the Annunciation is celebrated on December 18th, which later ceded its place to the Feast of the ‘Expectation of Childbirth’ or ‘Our Lady of the O’, referencing that on the 17th began the second part of Advent Time with the liturgical antiphons that are headed with the Latin exclamation of admiration ‘O’.9 In Cuba , in the small Habanero village of El Rincón, also on December 18th and its vigil, were very important, because before the arrival of Saint Lazarus, it seems that the feast of ‘Our Lady of the O’ or the ‘Virgin of Hope’ (the ‘Macarena’ of Seville) was celebrated, which was the first patron saint of this town. And third, according to historiography, the official opening of the new chapel of San Lázaro in El Rincón took place in the midst of a Holy Mass celebrated just on Monday, December 17, 1917, the day before the patron saint festivities of the town.”
Why place this image of Saint Lazarus, “the beggar”, on the high altar and place on another altar the traditional Saint Lazarus, “the bishop”?
“In order to answer that I must first point out two things. First, it is a Roman Catholic tradition to place the titular saint of the temple in the middle of the main altar of the temple. Second, since its construction in 1714 the temple of San Lázaro, the first public chapel of the hospital with the same name, until today, National Shrine, the holder of this church is Saint Lazarus, ‘the beggar’, and not ‘the bishop’. Therefore, the presence of this image on the main altar is neither canonical nor liturgically speaking a crazy idea, let alone blasphemy. Taste or preference does not come into play here, not even pastoral. The pastoral aspect on the theological and liturgical aspect is not being overstealed on this issue. With regard to St Lazarus, ‘the beggar’, the pastoral, the theological and the liturgical go hand in hand with history and devotion.
“On December 17, 1917, the church of San Lázaro – a chapel in the hospital – was blessed at its new site in the town of El Rincón. In this year the devotion to Saint Lazarus, ‘the beggar’, was being considered more ‘popular’ than ‘traditional Catholic’, to the point that, in the current main altarpiece, the work of the habanero Estudio Coromina, in 1940, the image of the ‘bishop’ was placed. There is documentary evidence showing that devotion, processions and prayers ‘with ecclesiastical permission’ culminate around 1925, when there seems to be a radical shift in devotional practices, say ‘official’.
“Everything seems to indicate that, by the decision of Msgr. José Manuel Dámaso Ruiz y Rodríguez, then Archbishop of Havana, to save the ‘catholicity’ of devotion to Saint Lazarus, the old image of the ‘beggar’ was sent to dress and his own attributes were removed, common to images of this kind from a very old age such as that of the Lazareto de Plasencia , in Spain. Likewise, this image, placed on the side of the then tiny temple10 was called ‘St Lazarus, martyr’ trying to identify both images as ‘scenes’ of the life of the same saint, in this case , ‘the bishop’. Any formal propaganda about ‘the beggar’ was forbidden and the faithful began to be taught, that to this day many have it well inside, that the Saint Lazarus ‘of dogs’ is a legend, a simple parable made by the Lord Jesus and that does not exist, which is what people call Babalú ayé, and that St Lazarus ‘Catholic’ is ‘the Bishop of Marseille’. This was a pastoral solution of the time. I don’t endorse her or criticize her. The saying goes that ‘before judging you must put yourself in each other’s shoes’. But time showed that instead of solution it caused greater confusion, because, as I told you before, the Bishop of Marseille is from the 4th century and therefore was not the venerable ‘friend of Jesus’.
“They ask me why to place this image of St Lazarus, the beggar, on the high altar and place on another altar the traditional Saint Lazarus, Bishop. For two fundamental reasons: pastoral and historical. Pastoral reasons: because, I repeat to you, the pastoral question is not to change or mutilate images but to catechesis, in what the Church teaches the people; and in asserting that neither of these two saints, distinct from each other (though historically mixed) are representations of the orisha Babalú ayé. Historical reasons: on December 17, 2017, in the midst of the celebrations for the first centenary of the blessing of this temple, we placed in the center, next to the Lord, in the main altarpiece, the owner of the house. I like to say that ‘the owner of the house welcomes his guests in the living room and does not remain hidden in the kitchen’. Jesus has given us St Lazarus, the poor, the beggar, to give us a teaching and to enrich our faith with the various miracles of his intercession. Both the ‘rediscover’ the image of the ‘beggar’ and thus show it to the faithful, and the reorganization of the images within the temple is not an absolute novelty. For years it has been studying and working the pastoral care of the Sanctuary from the rectors before me.
“Some priests and sages of theology and sacred art gave me the idea of placing both images together in the main altarpiece. Well, we made the attempt, and even added an image of an angel turned into a third Saint Lazarus, so that both the Holy Marselles of the iv century and ‘the friend of Jesus’ were on the sides of the ‘holder’, but the faithful did not accept a ‘third’ Lazarus. It made sense. In the background, the faithful are not interested in whether ‘the bishop’ was from Marseille or Cyprus, which is more importantly that he was ‘the friend of Jesus’. And as the Latin adage says: ‘Vox populi, vox Dei est’,11 there were only two left, our two Lazarus, ‘the bishop’ and ‘the beggar’, next to the image of St Joseph, the patron saint of the universal Church. Moreover, there is no denying that the vast majority of visitors to the Shrine come looking for St Lazarus ‘the beggar'”.
A renovated altar for a renewed “cult”?
“It’s like that. Today the revered image of Saint Lazarus, ‘the beggar’ is covered by an acrylic that protects it from natural deterioration over time and the flashes of the cameras of around 50,000 devotees and visitors that our Sanctuary receives monthly. Remember, we’re talking about a three hundred-year-old image. And since it is now in the main altarpiece, it was necessary to create an entire system that included the construction of a pre-pre-pisterium enclosure, protected by a new marble wall that allows the offerings and exvotes of the faithful to be collected without this interfering with the liturgical celebrations and daily catechesis of the Shrine. Under the urn were placed angels who seem to sustain and raise it, which reminds us of the text of Luke: ‘It came to pass that the beggar died, and the angels brought him into the bosom of Abraham’ (Lk 16:22)”.
Why so many changes in such a short time?
“It is true, here I must express my “mea culpa”. Everything has been the result of the desire to offer the faithful and pilgrims of the Shrine, as soon as possible, a space where the theological truths of the Church are manifested. The relocation to the altarpiece of the high altar of the image of the holy holder of the temple, the reorganization of the images of the Virgin and the saints exposed to public veneration, etc. This has been a time of “trial-error”, but it has also been time for study, research, grace. I can assure you that none have been ill-intentioned. Today we see a beautiful, stable Sanctuary that has changed for the better.”
Many people associate the Sanctuary with people crawling, syncretisms, etc. What is the Sanctuary of St. Lazarus in truth?
“It’s true [laughs], a lot of people think this. The international press also sells this image, which usually belongs to the so-called ‘Night of Saint Lazarus’, in December.12 But best of all they are wrong because this is a very partial image. We have done personal surveys, I myself have surveyed many faithful, and we can say that around 10% of practical Catholics attend the Shrine each year, more than 75% of pilgrims of ‘popular piety’ and only a little more than 15% of followers of Afro-Cuban cults. Interestingly many men, many young people and many families come from mother, father and children.
“The Sanctuary has an immense social work. To this day he devotes 10% of his total income to the care works of the Archbishopric of Havana and 20% to the charitable works of the Daughters of Charity, whose house is located in the dermatological hospital next to the Sanctuary, and carries out a heroic work always worthy of praise. 20% are earmarked for the wages of more than one hundred workers and 10% for their support.
“The other 40% is intended for the multiple social and charitable works of the Shrine. Understand: a nursery with capacity for sixty-five children aged two, three and four years, with services of psychology, general medicine, pedagogy, etc., a grandparents’ house with twenty elderly people and their assistants, occupational therapist, nutritional care and physical exercise. We also have a ‘canteen’ program for around thirty seniors. We have a customized and money order financial aid system. We financially assist leprosy sufferers. In addition, our Sanctuary supports one project for women and another for men suffering from HIV/AIDS. In fact, in 2017, 2018 and 2019 we won the Hope Award, for supporting the fight against HIV/AIDS. Also in this year 2019 we received special recognition from the ‘Support Line for people living with HIV/AIDS’.
“Similarly, we provide financial and material assistance to specific cases, such as to several families and individuals classified as ‘social cases’, to the school-workshop for disabled children in the municipality of Bejucal, we support the work of workers in the oncology room of the William Soler Hospital; we helped sustain an elderly dining room in the parish of Santiago de Las Vegas and two catechetical projects for children in the Cacahual and in the Jalisco-Mi ranch area that are located on the outskirts of Santiago de las Vegas.
“This we do, in addition to spiritually attending to those faithful who come to us, to this house, with no more convocation than one’s faith. This is a mystery. Here I have been able to see the faith of the people; fanaticism does, but above all, the faith of simple people, of the poor at heart. For our pastoral work we are guided by the guidelines of the Holy See on Shrines.”13
What is the Church’s position on the growing religious syncretism in Cuba?
“Secularism and paganism are increasing in the world, and our country is no stranger to this. Both secularism and paganism have many faces and names. Here in our Cuba, since the sixteenth century, syncretism is present and has been on the rise. We can’t cover the sun with one finger. Many Catholic Christians are alarmed by this event, and rightly so. Add to this the phenomenon called the New Age which is an overlapping paganism in a kind of ‘gourmet religion’ that ends up being a radical atheism. This is the time we have had to live. Before this “ajiaco”, to employ a term coined by Don Fernando Ortiz, the Church continues to proclaim the Truth and point to the Way.
“Reading the comments to the post we made on December 16, 2019, a religious commented, “Where are we going as a Church? I didn’t answer him, but that made me think. And I want to share my reflection with the readers of this interview. On Palm Sunday, the Lord said to the Jews, “If they shut up, the stones shall cry” (Lk 19:40). If as a Church we do not offer the devotees of St Lazarus, one or the other, a ‘house for all’; if as Catholic Christians we do not offer followers of syncretic worship a place of Christian catechesis, listening to the Word, blessing and welcoming, if the Church were to abandon or close this Shrine, then they themselves would create another, totally alien to the Church; as we see it with Saint Barbara or our Lady of Mercy in Goines, or the “Chapel of St. Lazarus” in Matanzas. Another clear example is “El Rincón de San Lázaro” in Hialeah, Miami, a non-Catholic place, but numerously larger than the Catholic parish of San Lázaro located in that city.
“All this does not mean, at all, that we must ‘assimilate what comes to us’. In this sense, I like to repeat very much to the workers of the Sanctuary: “Always remember that this is a Catholic church”. We must welcome and accompany to purify and sanctify. The Lord also told the adulterous sinner, ‘go in peace and sin no more’ (Jn 8.11), we must teach pilgrims to differentiate between the Christian faith we profess and teach and practices outside this faith. You can’t hide the truth by arguing charity. Truth and charity are not opposed. But I admit this costs a lot. I think we need to keep working in this regard.”
We have known that the copy of the image, known as the “San Lázaro peregrino”, has visited some of the communities of our archdiocese on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the founding of the town of San Cristobal de Havana. In addition, the foundational image itself visited the Habanera cathedral. How would you rate this tour? What reactions did our people have?
“First of all, without wanting to compare it at all with the precious pilgrimage of the ‘mambise’ image of Our Lady of Charity of Copper for our homeland, I would describe this visit as ‘historic’. Deep down, we would have wanted it to be more extensive and cover, at least in its cathedrals, the dioceses of Pinar del Río and Matanzas. But the time was little since the idea was realized until the visit came true. We have gathered many testimonies from practical Catholics, from people of people, from simple people, have been magnificent. The gratitude of the faithful and devotees has overwhelmed the minuscule uns favorable comments.
“We know that many faithful would have wanted to have this blessed image in their parishes, but it could not have been for lack of time. Even Fr. José Joaquín Espino, pastor of the church of San Lazarus in Hialeah in the city of Miami, has asked us to visit his parish, and perhaps two more, in order to deepen the bonds of faith and devotion that exist between the two sister churches. I said, ‘Father, it must be a short visit, because it was in Havana,’ to which he replied, ‘That’s how it will be, if God will allow it.’ Already in the parish of San Lázaro is exhibited a mosaic painting depicting Saint Lazarus, the beggar, and behind it, the facade of our Sanctuary. A painting like this is possessed by the Holy Father, both gifts of this Sanctuary.”
One last question… what do you dream of for the National Shrine of San Lazarus?
“Pope Francis told the young people in Havana, during his pastoral visit to Cuba, that we dream big. I dream of a larger sanctuary, both in construction structure and pastoral structure. I dream that pilgrims, who often make so much effort to get here, will be more respectful of silence in the face of the simplicity of the place, but which contains a spiritual greatness. I dream that this will be a place of welcome, of understanding.
“May the preaching that resonates in him, the sacramental life that develops in him, the frequent signs of mercy of God that happen in him, make these thousands of pilgrims who attend to meet Christ, who is the one who gives us the gift of life, of faith. the true author of miracles, motivate themselves to forgive, to tear down walls and to ‘make bridges’, to increase in their lives the works of mercy. May they find in the Sanctuary the presence of God, the peace they seek, the welcome, the blessing. May it be for all, a true spiritual refuge, of hope and strength in personal or family suffering. May it truly be the House of All.” Ω
A curious fact…
On 7 March, he visited our Shrine Msgr. Rudolf Voderholzer, Bishop of the German Diocese of Regensburg, Alumman of Dogmatic Theology of Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Muller. He came with Fr. Johann Ammer, Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. Peter of Regensburg, and a group of faithful from that diocese. Motivated to visit Cuba for Sacred Music Week in Havana, Msgr. Rudolf Voderholzer informed the organizers of this event of their special interest in pilgrimage and celebrating Holy Mass in our Sanctuary because a chapter of his Doctoral Thesis is dedicated to the biblical-theological theme of the two “Lazarus” (St. Lazarus “of Bethany”, Bishop of Cyprus and Saint Lazarus “the beggar”). The prelaught claimed to be very excited to venerate the two “Lazarus” and was very excited that both images were found in the main altarpiece of the temple: “Apparently here they have solved this dilemma, both saints sharing the same altar, it is a very wise thing,” the Bishop said.
1 Thus st Paul is often appointed, even though he was not part of the original “Twelve Apostles”. See Romano Penna: “Paul”, in C. Leonardi, A. Riccardi, G. Zarri (eds.), Dictionary of Saints, Volume II, Madrid, St. Paul, 2000, pp. 1801-1812.
2 Confused many times with St Mary Magdalene, but they are two different people, though they lived at the same time.
3 July 29 Quarto Kaléndas augústi. 1. The memory of Saint Martha, who received Jesus, the Lord, and her brother Lazarus, at her home in Bethany, near Jerusalem, proclaimed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God, who have come into the world” (s. i). 2. Commemoration of Saints Lazarus, brother of St Martha, whom the Lord wept at the time of her death, and whom she was resurrected, and Mary, her sister, who, while Martha was concerned and nervous in preparing all that is necessary, she, sitting at the feet of the Lord, listened to her words (s.I.).
4 It is translated from Hebrew by the term tradition. It is the style of Hebrew literature or, rather, a method of exegesis, which is used in some biblical texts, to convey a truth understandable to readers. This method is common in the Old Testament. In the New Testament he is employed to refer to Old Testament texts, which intermingled with current facts for the author (in this case the evangelist), try to make more understandable and endow a teaching, of profound meaning the stories to their New Testament contemporaries. Among them we could mention, according to Raymond E. Brown: the visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to her cousin Elizabeth (Lk 1:39), the birth of Jesus (Mt 1.1-25), the visit of the Magi of the East (Mt 2.1-12), the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River (Mt 3:13-17), among others. See his book The Birth of the Messiah, pp. 198 and 581-587.
5 Cf. Richard Bauckham: “The Rich Man and Lazarus: the Parable and the Parallels”, in The Fate of the Dead: Studies on the Jewish and Christian Apocalypses, Leiden, Brill, 1998, p. 101.
6 Liturgical calendar used in Byzantium in the style of Martyrdom in Rome.
7 The hospital in the Middle Ages was called a “lazareto” in the Middle Ages to care for the skin sufferers, especially leprosy. The oldest known lazareto in Spain is located in the province of Cáceres, Extremadura, and operated until the fourteenth century .C.
8 Also known as “iconoclastia”, it is an expression that in Greek means “breaking images”. In the history of the Church, the “movement of the viii and ninth centuries is called in which some bishops of the Byzantine Empire denied worship because of sacred images, destroyed them, and persecuted those who worshipped them.
9 Andrés Azcárate: The flower of the liturgy, Abbey of San Benito, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1951, pto. 5, pp. 447-448.
10 The temple of San Lazarus in El Rincón, with a Latin cross plant, was widened sideways in the radical remodeling that took place in the nineties of the twentieth century, carried out by Fr. Ramón Suárez Polcari, who would be the first rector of the church erected as a National Shrine in 1992.
11 “The voice of the people is the voice of God.”
12 It is known as “Night of Saint Lazarus” in the afternoon and night of 16 December until the early morning of 17 December.
13 Especially the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy. Principles and orientations, Vatican City, 2002, and the Apostolic Letter of the Holy Father Francis in the form of motu proprio Sanctuarium in Ecclesia, of the 1st. April 2017.