To be guardians of souls is, in itself, the office of great; of beings accompanied by the most sublime of professions, the magisterium of humility. The priest is a missionary and is also a witness of the gospel. With that certainty, more than twenty years ago a young Habanero decided to embark on the race to be a priest. He defined his vocation from an early date; and if something, apart from divine motivation, stimulated his decision, it was the desire to sow the seed of faith in a society where atheism education and propaganda crossed the reality of a people who demanded more and more of a motivating and liberating spirituality. In the midst of this reality, Christians were surprised by their coherence of life and service.
Today Father Yosvany Carvajal Sureda celebrates his 20th anniversary as a priest. He is parish priest of the Santa Metropolitana Cathedral Church of Havana and rector of the Padre Félix Varela Cultural Center, a place where dialogue with society, with art and education is committed. With regard to these two decades of priesthood, the New Word spoke with this dear priest, accompanied by a leisurely and accurate saying.
With an emotional “Father, I’m going to miss you!” in a public way, you said goodbye a year ago to Cardinal Jaime Ortega. What values mediated your relationship with the remembered cardinal? Twenty years after his priestly ordination, how do you evoke him in his formation as a priest and in the exercise of his ministry?
“I think the expression ‘father’ essentially indicates the relationship that existed between Cardinal Jaime and me. He was first and foremost a father to me as soon as he was the bishop I had met until then, the one who accepted me in the seminary, sent me to study in Rome every year of the theology corresponding to the seminary, and then, already as a priest, the specialization in Biblical Theology. I remember, as a teenager, in the sacristy of the cathedral, he asked me if I had questioned the possibility of being a priest.
“He ordered me to be very young, barely twenty-four years old. The year I was working as a parish vicar in east Havana, together with Msgr. Jorge Serpa, he asked me to take over the cathedral, live in the Archbishopric and serve as secretary. The moments I lived with him were very interesting and full of anecdotes. I learned a lot from watching him do his pastoral work, took initiatives, and also assumed his concerns. He had a very acute view of Cuba’s sociopolitical situation and a tremendous ability to interact with the authorities, always trying to seek the good of the Church and the people. I saw him suffer misunderstanding inside and outside Cuba, but he was still acting without being discouraged. My relationship with him was always characterized by being very human, full of masterful teachings, advice, regaños, although I was also able to freely express my disagreements on a specific topic or diversity of opinion regarding his. I always asked for your advice and obeyed what you advised me to do in my pastoral work. I believe that by firing a man like him, who pastored the Habanera Church for so many years, and with whom I could confront my ideas and initiatives, it was logical that I would say that Sunday morning at his funeral mass: ‘Father, I will miss you.'”
At some point (and I know this because the cardinal himself told me) asked the then Archbishop of Havana, Jaime Ortega, who saw him too loaded with different and varied obligations, to please do not remove him as parish priest of the cathedral, that if anything he enjoyed was to be a parish priest. Do you still think the same way?
“My answer is yes, of course I do, and over the years I think it will remain a yes my answer. The priest’s own thing is pastoral work, being in the parish with the people. For this we are called and for this we are sent, to serve God’s people: administering the sacraments, listening to the feeling of the people who come to the Church, and also the one who stays at the door and does not enter. I mean those people who, in saying about Pope Francis, are on the existential peripheries.
“The years of atheism in Cuba and the interpretation of some of the word lay people to refer to the State and its institutions – I believe that the term lay has sometimes been taken as synonymous with atheist – has developed in not a few Cuban parish priests a very up-to-date and creative way of presenting the project of life that Jesus Christ brings to man of these times. This is a challenging task, but very interesting in pastoral work. I must say that in my case I have had to work on the creation of the Padre Félix Varela Cultural Center, whose work has sometimes not been understood or easy to exercise, as is the academic training of young believers and non-believers who study here.
“In Rome I have been asked to devote myself full-time to the academic work of the Institute, but having all the burden of obligations in the Center and the Cathedral, Cardinal Jaime asked me what to do, as I thought, to which I replied that everything I have done so far in the Institute could really do it , but work in the parish is the same as a priest, that is what we do best, for for that we receive the sacred order. Moreover, with the shortage of priests in Cuba we cannot devote ourselves to a single pastoral task. We’re all aware of this. We would already like to be able to function as it is elsewhere, but my brethren priests attend many communities at once, as it was my turn to do where I have gone. How could a priest be full-time academically and abandon pastoral care? It would also be contradictory a lack of charity with priests. In everything, the Archbishop and Grand Chancellor of the Institute, Archbishop Juan García, always have the final floor; I obey him.”
Do you consider yourself a man of deep spiritual life? I don’t feel like a priest too attached to repeating formulas for praying. Has prayer been your greatest strength?
“I think it’s appropriate for you to ask me this question in this priestly anniversary celebration, because it helps me put in written words something that is always very difficult to do, and more so when you talk about yourself, to which I do a little rejection. But I remember that it was always an insistence on the part of my trainers that it was the importance of the life of prayer and the care of spirituality for a priest.
“I can tell you that my spiritual life and the experience of personal prayer have been strengthening over the years. In these twenty years I look back and give thanks because I have never lacked the Eucharist, whether it is the one held in the communities where I have spent in my pastoral work, such as the one I celebrate daily and more consciously in the last ten years as pastor of the cathedral and rector of the Cultural Center. From the daily Eucharist I have made my true strength, even if I do not have many faithful present. Sometimes I’ve had to celebrate Mass alone. Thank God, I was joined daily by faithful and employed, and in the last year the Carmelite sisters of San José joined, although they attended every Sunday since they arrived in Cuba. All the daily work I put on the altar and in my daily prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours that I perform before I go down to celebrate Holy Mass and at other times of the day, especially at night.
“I have had to entrust my pastoral work in the Cultural Center a lot and ask God for his help in doing the right thing. At least that was the intention. What I ask of the Lord most is discernment. It’s one of the most necessary things in all time. I remember that when I was in my seminary years in Rome we used to have spiritual conferences to which I did not see much contribution in the concrete life of a forming, and I went to see another confessor and spiritual director who accompanied me all that time. He is an excellent Jesuit theologian and professor at the Gregorian University whom I thank whenever I have the opportunity to find him, when it is my turn to go to Rome. Hence, as you rightly say, I am not given to ‘plasticized’ spiritual phrases, or to give spiritual life melodramatic dimensions. I go to what I have to do, try to do it right, and entrust myself in my daily prayer to the Lord. I’ve learned from my successes and miswilderments. Because of my character, perhaps I am not prone to sentimentally expressing my spiritual life, let alone bathing it with certain melifluous tones. Some friends tell me I tend to be rather cerebral.
“I decided to study Biblical Theology when the bishop asked me what I would like to specialize in. I thank you for letting me choose. The study of Sacred Scripture, beyond the suffering of learning Hebrew and Greek, has been and continues to be an important element in my life of prayer. The preparation of homily and exegesis in the exercise of teaching help me to live better this indispensable dimension in the life of a priest. I ask the Lord to remain so when He celebrates, if it is his will, twenty-five years of ordaining. Spiritual life is never a finished product, I keep learning and I would like over the years to continue trying to be faithful.”
At some point you stated that the Church will always have something to say and something to contribute. In the midst of an extremely difficult situation for the Cuban people, what does the Church say to these people? What can it bring to you in the midst of so much suffering and disorientation? To what extent is the priest committed to the well-being of people?
“The Church always has something to say and to contribute in relation to the problems that concern humanity. This is how I learned it by the testimony of the Cuban bishops in these years. This is how he remains faithful to the mission he has received from Christ to proclaim to all creation the Good News. He does it in a way that is his own and with gospel-inspired language. The starting point of this mission is in the principle of Incarnation: Christ became man. Being true God and true man, nothing to do with the human is alien to the Church.
“When Christ’s message is carried to the world, the public things of the world are also included. In this effort to serve all, the Church eliminates the risk of identifying faith with a particular form of thought, whether economic or political. The Gospel contains truths and values that it makes available to all, but does not give a concrete answer to each of the problems of politics and economics. This is what the Second Vatican Council refers to when it speaks of the ‘autonomy of earthly realities’, by the way, this autonomy is not absolute. It is possible to challenge everyone not to become deaf to that fundamental moral law inscribed in the very nature of man. This makes it possible for the Church to be a free space where fraternity and reconciliation reign among all, even if they think differently.
“In view of this global situation that we are experiencing, the Church in Cuba recognizes as a good, at least I perceive it, the work that the public health authorities have done to safeguard the health of all Cubans in the face of this pandemic that has caused so many deaths. When she sends a message in this global social and economic crisis, the Church appeals to Christian hope. The Church has no formula other than this trust in Providence and similarly exhorts every man and woman’s social commitment in the pursuit of the common good. From hope springs all the inspiration of the Church when it sends a message to the faithful and to all men of good will. I, as one who likes Sacred Scripture, think at this moment of the Sermon on the Mountain (Mt 5-7), for from there we can take the necessary criteria to speak and claim justice and exalt the best of people, including non-Christians. It’s a sermon for all mankind. It is the most talked about biblical text by theologians, jurists, sociologists and politicians.
“The Church notes that human suffering is similar in all ages, what vary are its causes. Faced with this reality experienced by Cubans, he proposes the message of Christ who is always the same, The Golden Rule: ‘Treat others as you would like them to treat you’. Or in another sense and equal meaning: ‘Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you.’ I would appeal to this, first of all, in the face of the discouragement, despair and aggressiveness that is being lived on the streets to obtain the necessary food and also in young people when it comes to having fun. The Church insists on the role that the family plays in society, and defends it against attacks by fashionable ideologies, since it provides psychological and affective balance, as well as the values necessary to save young people from any danger, whether falling into crime, or to let themselves be dragged by drugs or alcohol.
“The Social Doctrine of the Church is the catechism itself brought into its social form. It emphasizes the value of human dignity by advocating for fair, dignified wages and more humane working conditions. This is a treasure trove of Church teachings and must be known to all the faithful. But when I have said that the Church always has something to contribute, I would also like to stress that it is not that she always has to speak with masterful documents, because there are many problems always. It can enlighten consciousness, but also contribute with concrete charity. The Church helps in these times of crisis with her projects, such as caritas: nursing homes, day care centers, and other care work. At the level of human promotion it has contributions that can be of great help to economic growth, such as projects accompanying the non-state sector, or to small entrepreneurs known in Cuba as accountors. Always from the social ethics of the Church and fostering corporate responsibility.
“In these initiatives, the figure of the priest is important, for he knows his people, comforts him with hope and knows where the greatest needs are, be it these materials or human promotion. The Church does not have the first or last word in everything, in saying of the great Archbishop Msgr. Adolfo Rodríguez, but trusts in the one who has it: Jesus Christ. I would like, in conclusion, to borrow the words uttered recently by the Superior General of the Jesuits, Fr. Arturo Sosa, for I find them illuminating: ‘… in the Covid crisis let us also take care of democracy, this is a magnificent occasion to strengthen fraternity. The compass oriented on the good of all is essential.'” Ω