Orlando Fernández Guerra is a permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of Havana. In this difficult 2020 he turned seventeen years of order, for much of this time he has led the Department of Biblical Animation of the Pastoral of the Barbary Archbishopric. Broadly speaking, the content of his work is aimed first at managing Bibles for parish pastoral activity. Because these do not occur in Cuba, their acquisition depends on the generous collaboration of Christians from other countries. The other part of the work of this tireless man, surely the one that demands the most of his time and effort, is to share Scripture with members of parish communities, pastoral movements and Houses of Mission. This work is carried out through workshops, courses, talks and retreats, in which it addresses varied topics that correspond to some liturgical cycle or the needs of biblical formation that warns in the diocese.
Although the fundamental setting of its mission is the Archdiocese of Havana, which reaches three provinces and the special municipality Isla de la Juventud, Orlando collaborates with all the dioceses of the country.
For an extremely laborious man, with almost English respect for schedules, the Covid-19 meant what for so many: some emotional mismatch. The new virus put many lives at risk and forced the world, each person, to stop his hasty passage, to pick himself up at home and to rethink himself day by day from a new reality. No crossing your arms. Like others, Orlando found on social media the ideal space to continue sharing Scripture. In this regard, he spoke with the New Word, just as he was also re-stressed as a grandfather, this time of a beautiful girl who was named Saile.
You are a very active man in your pastoral work, what was your reaction to being forced into confinement that prevented you from continuing your talks and courses on the Bible and other topics in Haban communities and outside this diocese?
“By the first months of confinement, I already had organized Lectio Divina workshops every Saturday in communities in the diocese, some retreats in Lent in preparation for Holy Week, my usual weekly classes at the Father Felix Varela Center for Ecclesiastical Studies and in my parish community, where we have a Zonal Bible School with a weekly rhythm. With the pandemic I had to stop everything, this forced me to rething another work routine from which I could continue to serve the Church and the cause of the Kingdom.”
How and how do you decide to adjust to the necessary physical isolation?
“I don’t like to be idle, I try to make the most of my time every day. So I had to find some way to get there with the Good News, even if it was fewer people. The gospel has been stumbling since its very beginning, this is not new, but it has prevailed for centuries by avoiding all geographical, social, political and cultural difficulties. He has been accompanied by wars, pandemics, natural disasters, prohibitions and persecutions, which have not infreeredly been bloody. Even today, in the 21st century, Christians continue to be persecuted because of their faith in many parts of the world and die martyrs for not betting on it. But that doesn’t seem to be news for the media.
“This new virus arrives and rightly grabs the attention of the world; but it wasn’t going to stop us. For my part, I just needed to get back on a new stage. Today we have information and communications technologies, with social networks, to which more and more people in our country have access. I sensed that this could be a solution to continue my pastoral work and bet everything on it.”
Since before the pandemic your WhatsApp status was an important exchange platform, why that interest in resting on this digital network to reach friends, acquaintances etc.?
“I introduce you first in which context I work pastorally to make my work understood. Our diocese is an associate member of the Catholic Bible Federation (FEBIC). From this affiliation I am your secretary, and it is presided over by Cardinal Juan de la Caridad García as Archbishop. We are talking about a platform of work created by Pope Paul VI fifty-one years ago, at the end of the Second Vatican Council. It aims to promote Sacred Scripture in the Catholic Church. In what is now called CEBITEPAL (Pastoral Theological Biblical Center for Latin America), an agency under the Episcopal Conferences of the region, based in Bogota, I was trained in the new ecclesiological paradigm that was emerging from this continent to the world. This was defined – at least in the name, because the task is always open – at the 5th General Conference of the Episcopate held in 2007 in Aparecida. This is what has been called the Biblical Animation of Pastoral Care (ABP).
“ABP is understood as the effort to make Scripture, not just the ‘soul of theology’, as Vatican II wanted; but ‘the soul of all the pastoral and missionary life of the Church’. All the works of the Church must necessarily be inspired by the Bible, if they want to continue to be called ‘Christians’.
“That’s the engine that drives me. My greatest motivation is to generate better initiatives of accompaniment and service to the Church where the Bible is the center. The heart of the Christian faith is the Word of God proclaimed, lived and celebrated in the Church. For this reason it is imperative for me to always be pastorally active. All Christians should feel the urgency of evangelization and hear in our hearts the words of St Paul: ‘Woe to me if I do not evangelize!’ (1 Cor 9.16). But when you have diocesan responsibilities, burning must multiply exponentially so as not to become that lazy servant who hid the talents given to him by his Lord (Mt 25:26-29).”
From that first experience is that this new WhatsApp group “Friends of the Bible” is born?
“Certainly. The first broadcast group I made (still active and with many members) is called ‘Febic-Habana’. Here I have as main recipients the bishops, priests, deaconos and religious, to whom I send weekly the comments to the Sunday readings, the Lectio Divina and some other things. This group started it long before the pandemic. Then I came up with the ‘Friends of the Bible’ thing, which in practice is a clone of the former, because I send the same content to both groups. But I wanted them to be different people, so there are many Lay Catholics, evangelical faithful and pastors from different congregations, including agnostics interested in a spiritual message and Hope for these times.
“Of course the content has been growing and diversifying. Some of these members in turn have outreach groups through which they share some of the material I put in. I have heard audiotestimonios of gratitude for the quality and seriousness of the material, as well as for perseverance. I tell you this because you never know the impact that what you say, or do, or share with others can have. How many hearts can be carried away with help and hope using these means!”
How do you maintain that daily schedule of this group? As we would say in good Cuban: you have a wide offer.
“I have many good digital materials, in text and audio, some even of own production. I have also received collaborations from colleagues in biblical work from different parts of the world from the outset. It would be ungrateful not to name them. For example, from the Pastoral Bible Foundation of the Claretians in Hong Kong I receive weekly comments to Sunday readings; Archbishop Damian Nannini, Bishop of the Diocese of San Miguel in Argentina, the Lectio Divina with Sunday readings; FEBIC and the Divine Word Society, materials that they make available for sharing; SBU also a package of materials relating to the pandemic and faith. From Temuco, in the southernmost part of Chile, I receive daily meditations for each morning. The latter is hand-recorded by a boy at home, detracting from his college studies. Also from the United States I get devotional materials, and from Spain I count on the collaboration of a deacon from Seville and a seminarian from Huelva who send me literature to share. As you can see, we have woven an international support network to carry out this work. That makes the offer not only broad but rich in content.”
We know the limitations that Cubans have on the issue of connectivity, certainly improved in recent months. However, the exchange is rich in your states. What do you think this is about?
“To the interest that many have in feeding on the Word, especially when mass or worship cannot be attended, as in the case of evangelicals who are members of the group. This global pandemic has made it clear that the use of social media for evangelization is not conjunctural. This is here to stay. I think that all the pastoral cares of the Church would have to start projecting their future work beyond the parish classroom. The temple is no longer the only space to meet those who do not know Christ. Despite all the limitations – which sleep are resolved in the near future – Cuba has six million cell phone users. It’s not uncommon to see from a child to an old man with a phone or tablet in his hands consuming digital content.
“There are good and bad deals in the market contesting the attention of these consumers. The Church cannot ignore this reality or remain alien to it. We have to be there. We cannot afford to be absent where our voice becomes necessary, which is the voice of Christ who has sent us, as a criterion of discernment in the increasingly complex social relations.”
Finally, what importance do you attach to digital platforms for the pastoral work of the Church in Cuba today? Do you think it’s properly exploited? What would it take to improve it?
“It has been a few years since Pope John Paul II said that the media – and that is why social networks are also understood today – are the new areopago that Christians must take advantage of to propose the message of the Gospel, which is always New and Good News, revealing itself as the answer to those who seek reasons to live and dream of a better world.
“I am aware that online symposia and conferences are being held around the world today to share the experiences of this pandemic time and to plan for the future of evangelization using social media on their basis. Work can always be done more and better as we prepare for it and spend time and resources for its growth and exploitation. There are some platforms with incredible potential, for example, YouTube, where you can not only hang videos but also podcast, now very fashionable. But we are not yet in a position to use them efficiently because of the difficulty in acquiring the technical tools necessary for the production of content, as well as for the use that could be given to it having such limited, slow and expensive access to the web.
“On the other hand, there are some good platforms for distance education and evangelization that are closed for Cuba due to the American embargo. But in other cases that access is censored from within, by the country’s policies. Both extremes certainly limit us, but they do not impede pastoral work, if we are creative. What hurts the user the most is the price of the internet and the bandwidth. And to the Church, what most harms her, is the misunderstanding of her pastors and lay leaders to make good use of these means. We remain tied to an educational-catechetical and evangelizing model that implies physical presence. And today this is not the only scenario for it.
“Cubans use the internet to communicate with their relatives who are out of the country. The most popular apps are: Gmail, Facebook, Messenger and WhatsApp. These four, among so many, open a content window that is not always good or of quality. As you well know, the internet is an ocean to navigate, but also where to shipwreck. There is everything… and often very bad. If people had better access to the web, unlimited, fast, cheap and free, you could make an incredibly beautiful offer in the area of distance education and evangelization to the home, thinking especially of the elderly or those with some handicap that prevents them from attending the temple.” Ω