The Archbishop of Change
He was born in Camaguey on October 4, 1928. His father was a fervent Catholic trade unionist, very close to Msgr. Enrique Pérez Serantes, bishop of the diocese at the time. He had four brothers. At the age of ten he entered the Minor Seminary of Santa Maria, which at that time operated in the Camagueyana capital, later moved to the Seminary San Carlos and San Ambrosio in Havana to study humanities. After World War II, Msgr. Pérez Serantes sent him to the Pontifical University of Comillas in Santander, Spain. In that place he graduated first in Philosophy, and then in Theology.
On his return, the new Bishop of the diocese, the Spaniard Bishop Carlos Ríu Anglés, ordained him a priest in the Camagueyana cathedral on 13 April 1952 and assigned him to the parish of Santa Cruz del Sur, where he had the opportunity to deploy all the apostolic and pastoral possibilities that his genuinely priestly vocation bestowed on him. He was an excellent and admired parish priest in a fishing village and sugar plants. He was also a dynamic animator of Catholic Action in his community. Many illusions and projects accompanied his mission. It was he who invited the Sisters of God’s Love to create a school that would take into account poor children. In the capital of the burgeoning province of Camaguey, he assumed, without leaving his beloved parish, other pastoral responsibilities, including the creation of an ambitious Catholic television program.
Although Father Oves’ relations with his bishop were not the best, this did not reduce his interest and spirit in pastoral work. He was a very popular man in the village and people admired him and followed him. Some of those who knew him, and are still alive, remember him very fondly.
After the events in Havana’s parish of La Caridad on September 10, 1961,1, the government authorities apprehended him, as did more than two hundred priests from all over Cuba. On 17 September he was expelled to Spain in the covadonga ocean liner.2 During the voyage it was heard by the speakers that the Institute of Pastoral Sociology of Rome offered a scholarship for one of the expelled priests to study. There emerged the intelligent man who was Father Oves and immediately showed interest in the proposal. He was the only one who answered in the affirmative.
In the Eternal City he studied for three years, while took other complementary courses in Leuven, Belgium. In 1964 he received his Doctorate in Social Sciences. One of the attendees of the exhibition of Father Oves’s thesis, the priest Mérito González Artiga, evoked years later that he did so with such brilliity and mastery that the auditorium in full responded with a long and strong ovation
The return to Cuba
On June 30, 1963, on the occasion of the papal coronation of the today Saint of the Church, Paul VI, the Apostolic Nunciature in Havana offered a reception attended by the Prime Minister of the Revolutionary Government, Cte. Fidel Castro. The ad interim business manager, Msgr. Cesare Zacchi, took the opportunity and asked permission for the entry of priests into the country. Fidel agreed to the request, and the priests gradually entered for two years. The total figure reached eighty-four; among them returned some of those expelled on the ship Covadonga, such as the Spanish father Pauline Maximino Bea3 and Father Francisco Oves. Others were Cuban priests ordained abroad, as they were studying outside Cuba at the time of the revolutionary triumph. In the group there were also foreign parents who first arrived in the country.
Oves arrived on the island with his title of Doctor of Sociology and although he was incardinated in the diocese of Camaguey, he was left in Havana as professor of this subject at the Seminary El Buen Pastor and assigned him to the church of San Francisco de Paula, in La Viper, where he was parish priest Msgr. Alfredo Llaguno Canals, also auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese. Contrary to what many may think, Father Oves went not to live in the parish priest’s house, but to a pavilion of the Home for Ladies, next to the church, which was intended for sick and retired priests. In the meantime, he served as coadjutor priest of this parish of San Francisco de Paula. He always dressed as a cassock, although he was already allowed to dress as a civilian. He went in guagua to the seminary classes, first to the headquarters in Arroyo Arenas and later, after the nationalization of the building of El Buen Pastor, to the old farmhouse of Old Havana. Students enjoyed their Sociology classes and everything about the social part of Philosophy. Many still remember him as the great teacher he was. In the summer he used to go to his diocese to exercise pastoral functions.
In August 1968, the Second General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate was held in Medellin, Colombia, and Father Oves was appointed by the Vatican as an expert in Sociology to advise the various commissions. In this way, he accompanied the five Cuban bishops who attended: Alfredo Llaguno and Fernando Azcárate SJ, assistants of Havana; José Domínguez, Bishop of Matanzas; Adolfo Rodríguez, of Camaguey and Pedro Meurice, apostolic administrator vacant headquarters of Santiago de Cuba.
The 1969 Communiqués
At the end of the Medellin event, the development of which was momentous for all of Latin America, the assistant Cuban bishops began to show their rapid execution in their respective dioceses. The Episcopal Conference of the Island then determined that it was necessary to give a word about what the Church could do in the midst of a situation as difficult as that of ten years of Marxist-Leninist socialist revolution and unique to the continent. For nine years the Cuban episcopate had not spoken out about the social situation.
Msgr. Fernando Azcárate Freyre de Andrade SJ, auxiliary bishop of Havana was the promoter of the idea, which was soon endorsed by the other bishops. The Conference instructed Father Oves to draft an extensive statement with the guidelines they gave him and in order to set out Medellin’s ideas that were possible to be applied in Cuba. While the final document of the Latin American meeting concerned the social situation in Latin America, Cuba’s characteristics were totally different. This is how a key word was found: “development.” Certainly, the Cuban Revolution, according to the discourse of its leaders, pursued the development of the country, and the Church, for its part, can never oppose the good development of a nation.
In another line, Marxism values human work very much; the Church too, to the point that it puts it as a means for the sanctification of the person. The Second Vatican Council had already estimated the work of Catholics with men and women of other political, philosophical and religious ideologies in order to achieve progress. In addition, in 1967, the then Pope Paul VI had published a social encyclical, with the title Populorum progressio dedicated to the development of the poorest peoples. All this was the endorsement with which Father Oves worked in the drafting of the Cuban document.
Nowhere in the communiqué are the expressions “Cuban Revolution” and “socialism” mentioned. Nor does the document call on Catholics to support the Cuban Revolution and socialism. The faithful are simply encouraged to work alongside atheists in the development of the country. Logically, to talk about development in Cuba, it was necessary to mention the blockade as one of the factors that prevented it. This was the “apple of discord”, for at that moment it determined the non-acceptance of the document by Catholics, including priests. During the reading of the document, published on April 10, 1969, there were parishioners who rose from their seats and left the temple, perhaps so as not to return any more. For another group of Catholics and priests, the document was indifferent to them. Finally, there was a sector of Cuban Catholicism, including priests, who gladly accepted the document and considered it timely and necessary.
However, had the work of Catholics in state-owned centres, which, since 13 March 1968, under the revolutionary offensive, nationalized the few sectors of private property, not patented what the bishops reflected in their document? In this sense, what was written by pastors gave more motivation for the work of Catholics who remained in the country, despite being regarded as “second-rate citizens” and “unreliable”. They knew that they would never be given a leadership or frontline position in the construction of the new society. However, they participated and worked hard in the position they were able to fill and also in the scheduled productive days in work or study centres. Anywhere, Christians in general had a reputation for being very good workers. Never was his faith an obstacle to working for the development of the country, as advised at the time by bishops.
During the sixties, seventies and eighties of the last century, the Church saw a noted merma within the parishioner. Some because they emigrated from the country, others because they were hiding their faith, which did not re-emerge until after the Fourth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba in October 1991. Then they returned to the temples. Among those who abandoned religious practice were some who publicly reneged on their previous faith, and even more so, they came to taught against all kinds of believers. Finally, among those who abandoned religious practice, there were those who did not give life the opportunity to return, for death did not leave them. A very small group of Catholics who were faithful to the Church remained in Catholic communities, even in very difficult conditions. Most of them were adults, but there were also some young people, young couples and children. Significantly, always “by the grace of God”, there were new people who decided to integrate into the life of the ecclesial community to live their faith.
On September 3, 1969, Cuban bishops issued a second communiqué. In this appeared a doctrinal and moral foundation, based on the writings of the Magisterium of the Church on the social work of Catholics. This document had no objections. Not only did Father Oves intervene in his writing, as one part was written by Father Evelio Ramos, future auxiliary bishop of Havana. It would have been more pedagogical if the second document preceded the first; thus, this would have been more accepted by the faithful.
The succession of Msgr. Evelio Díaz at the Habanera headquarters
Msgr. Evelio was physically unable to fulfill his episcopal mandate that expired at the age of seventy-five, and requested his resignation from Pope Paul VI, who granted it to him for health reasons. Msgr. Oves, who had been appointed auxiliary bishop of Cienfuegos in April 1969, was the person appointed to succeed Msgr. Evelius and took office on February 10, 1970. By this time, the Church was going through one of the most difficult moments in its tense relationship with the Revolutionary Government. Many priests and faithful identified Oves as the intellectual author of the 1969 communiqué.
In the midst of an unenlenting reality, Msgr. Oves arrived, at only forty-one years old, to lead the Archdiocese of Havana, until he reached the base of it which is the parish. From the beginning he showed an intense and successful apostolic zeal. The first thing he did was not accept the two auxiliary bishops: Archbishops Azcárate and Llaguno; and appointed Fathers Evelio Ramos and Fernando Prego as episcopal vicars. Subsequently, both would be appointed bishops; Prego, full seat bishop of Cienfuegos and Evelio, auxiliary bishop of Havana.
He then divided the Habanera archdiocese into pastoral vicarages, revived existing pastoral commissions, and began pastoral visits to all parishes and chapels. He visited the sick in the parishes and spent several days living with the parish priest. Many times the driver of his car was himself. With disposition and pleasure, he went to the main festivities where requested. He repeatedly replaced parish priests when they were sick.
During his tenure, he attended the synods of bishops held in Rome in 1971, 1972 and 1977.
The Bishop of Change
In Havana he came determined to engage in a dialogue with the Government and with then-Prime Minister Fidel Castro. However, he always received “the quiet one” in response (although in this purpose he always had the clear support of the Vatican). During this period, the Cuban government had no interest in dialogue with the Church, even though many revolutionary socialist leaders, including the President of Christian Democracy in Chile, Radomiro Tomic, had a different opinion. Just this Chilean leader, a man of advanced tendencies, once told Fidel: “If you do not improve relations with the Church and other religions in Cuba, Christians in Latin America, mostly religious, will not believe you.” It was not until 1991 that the Cuban leader accepted Cuba’s ever-discriminated religious.
Between the end of 1970 and 1974 there was in Cuba the group of Catholics and Protestants called Christians for Socialism. Several factors contributed to its emergence, including:
the Second Conference of Latin American Bishops held in Medellin, Colombia, in 1968, which subsequently addressed and brought to one of the final documents of this event the reality of poverty existing in Latin American countries and the participation of Catholics in social, political and economic development, in order to contribute to the development of the continent;
the emergence of guerrilla fronts in several Latin American countries similar to the Cuban revolutionary movement that toppled the government of President Fulgencio Batista; these movements were leftist and frankly Marxist and appeared from 1964;
the incorporation, as soldiers, of some priests into these guerrilla movements, among which stands out the Colombian Camilo Torres; the statement of the Catholic bishops of Cuba in April 1969;
the Synod of Bishops of Rome held in October 1971, which had as its main themes “priestly celibacy and the social and economic development of peoples”; the triumph of the united left in the Chilean elections of 1970, which led Salvador Allende to the presidency of the country, and the appearance in that nation of the group called Christians for Socialism.
In the group of Christians for Socialism in Cuba, the School priest José Antonio Vizcaíno and the school priest whose surname was Estorino, who did not exercise priestly ministry at the time and worked as an employee at the National Library of Cuba, are neglected. In addition, there was a Cuban nun, resident in the United States, belonging to the religious congregation of Oblatas de la Providencia, and who had come to live in the convent of the Domestic Service on the Hill, her name was Hna. Mary Concepta, as well as prominent Catholic lawyer Raúl Gómez Treto. By February 1972, several seminarians were incorporated into this movement. Together with other lay university Catholics, they used to meet at the Church of Christ the King in Havana.
Seminarians belonging to Christians for Socialism had within the old study house unceretal and bellicose secularist expressions, which led the Seminary to a very convulsive internal situation. Cohabitation became virtually impossible among students, to the point that it caused the life of the Seminary itself to fail. This is when Msgr. Oves had to take a radical stance on these seminarians and the group of Christians for Socialism in general that worked in the diocese. He resolved to expel some of them, an attitude that was supported by the rector of the time, Father Froilán Dominguez Becerra. The rest of the bishops of Cuba also supported this decision.
As we can imagine, Msgr. Oves’ measures put him in a very cumbersome position towards the Government, especially when he wanted to bring an attitude of openness and dialogue. However, he navigated it with great skill and sailed masterfully between Scylla and Caribdis.
At the end of 1976, Msgr. Oves’ health began to decline into extreme and delicate situations. His deterioration was visible to all. External pressures, internal misunderstandings, maintained tensions and overwork debalanced it psychically. Once again, the Habanera situation made a bishop sick.
Because of this, he was called to Rome together with the then Bishop of Pinar del Río, Msgr. Jaime Ortega and the Bishop of Matanzas, Msgr. Dominguez. Thus he left Cuba, together with the prelados already mentioned, on June 5, 1979. Back in Rome, she was hospitalized for a medical checkup and underwent treatment. However, on the way out of the hospital, his medical situation was still not good. He was received by Pope John Paul II, of whom he was a friend from the synods of bishops. When he was preparing to return to Cuba in February 1980, he was drastically avoided from his departure and appointed a full-seated apostolic administrator to rule the Haban archdiocese. Responsibility lay with Archbishop Pedro Meurice Estiú, Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba. This decision prevented Msgr. Oves from exercising the pastoral government of his ecclesial territory. He never returned to Cuba again.
Back in Rome, his illness, far from slowing down, worsened abysmally. Later, the Vatican assigned him as episcopal vicar of El Paso, texas, United States. In this place he exercised his ministry with a very dedication of pastoral work with Mexican immigrants, who were very numerous. His illness did not improve and he suffered two heart attacks. The last of them was massive. He died suddenly on top of his bureau, in front of a Mexican priest who worked with him. It was on the morning of December 4, 1990. He was sixty-two years old when he died. His body was taken to Miami and in the cathedral of that city, the archbishop and a large group of Cuban priests residing there, held the funerals, which were attended from Cuba by Msgr. Jaime Ortega and Father René Ruiz. He was then inhumed in the Catholic cemetery of that archdiocese. His ashes were moved to Cuba and are in Havana Cathedral since December 3, 2012. Ω
1 According to the testimony of Msgr. Boza Masvidal, parish priest for that date of the church of Charity, after announcing to the faithful that the Church had obtained permission to conduct the procession on Sunday, September 10 at 5:00 p.m., the government reported on the night of September 8 that it could only be done at 7:00 a.m. As there was no time to announce change (the Church did not have access to the press or radio or television), the parish priest himself, in full agreement with other priests, announced at masses on That Sunday that the procession would not be held. In the afternoon, long before the time of the procession, the streets began to fill with thousands of people. At 5:00 p.m. Father Arnaldo Bazán celebrated Mass and asked everyone for calm, “that Our Lady was content with her goodwill and with that manifestation of faith”. But the crowd was exalted and began to shout, “Freedom, we want freedom!” They wanted to go out in procession anyway. Then they got in some nearby house a painting of our Lady of Charity, and one boy on another’s shoulders wore it aloft. The militiamen and soldiers started shooting at the people and that boy, named Arnaldo Socorro, fell dead.
2 After the events in the parish of the Cathedral, the Revolutionary Government, on 17 September 1961 decreed the expulsion of more than 130 priests from all over the island, led by Msgr. Eduardo Boza Masvidal. Together with members of religious congregations, they were banished to Spain. Father Oves was one of those priests and religious brought from various parishes and convents of all parts of the island. In a quick operation, they were taken to the port of Havana where the Spanish ocean liner Covadonga was docked. Over the years, Msgr. Oves recounted that he left Cuba with the cassock he was wearing and his breviary (prayer book) and, like him, almost everyone.
3 He was sent by Msgr. Enrique Pérez Serantes as a religious assistant to the area of the Second Eastern Front, and there Cte. Raúl Castro appointed him lieutenant of the Rebel Army.