“There’s nothing more interesting than being a parish priest”

Entrevista al cardenal Jaime Ortega publicada por Palabra Nueva en marzo de 2015
Fragmento de la entrevista al cardenal Jaime Ortega publicada por Palabra Nueva en marzo de 2015
Fragmento de la entrevista al cardenal Jaime Ortega publicada por Palabra Nueva en marzo de 2015

He is a man of flesh and blood, like any other, with accumulated sorrows and joys, eager for peace and harmony, with dreams and with a love for the Church and Cuba that comes out of every pore of his skin. Dear to many, misunderstood by others, Jaime Ortega Alamino is the only cardinal that Cuban Catholics have today and has also been Archbishop of Havana since 1981. Although he prefers to be identified as the parish priest he claims he has never ceased to be, the cardinal and archbishop accepts himself as a person of dialogue, not a diplomat. “And dialogue,” he says, “is the new name of love.”

The present and future of the Church and Cuba comes as a constant prayer and repeated theme in its homilies, statements and in conversations that it is not afraid to engage with its Catholic faithful or with Christians of other denominations, also with communists or with atheists, with men and women of right or left, with émigrés, politicians, congressmen or economicists. At the age of seventy-eight and already submitted his resignation by age to the Pope, as stipulated in the Code of Canon Law, Cardinal Jaime Ortega insists that the Church should take risks in an increasingly committed mission out of the temples.

Of this and other issues, he spoke to the New Word, during a long January morning.

A first reason conditions this exchange: the most recent Pastoral Council of the Archdiocese of Havana, where reflection was made on the Church’s evangelizing mission in Cuba. In this meeting you said that “the hardest thing in any renewal is the change of mindset”. Does the Church in Cuba have the need to renew he or she? If so, in what respects would you do so, are there the conditions for such renewal?

“I believe that a new ability is needed to internalize many of the things that in today’s world speak to us, challenge us, and expect our different responses and attitudes. It’s not changing dogma, it’s not changing faith, it’s about knowing what it means to live that faith at any given point in history. In this dynamic, the Cuban and universal Church must renew, change, but not a revolutionary change in the original meaning of the word, from one turn everything upside down, which is always worrying to many. Change must be rather evolutionary, progressive, in the direction of openness to today’s world. It was what the Second Vatican Council tried and what has been intended in these more than fifty years post-reconciles and which must always be achieved at increasing levels.

“According to the perspectives opened up to us by Francis’ pontificate, changes in mindsets are necessary, essential, I would say. This transformation or openness of thought does not coincide with people’s ages, but with their willingness to accept what the Pope calls ‘God’s surprises’, which suddenly bursts into history and makes us see that the course must be straightened out, that we must make new decisions. This requires a diverse conception of the future, of reality, of how it has been lived to this day.

“We said, as for the Church, that her pastoral action must be enrumrated, a reality that demands in the mentality of the Christian an availability to change. We always count, and that is our faith, with the action of the Holy Spirit, we hope that he will enlighten our hearts. Asked by a journalist about how he had faced the new reality of being photographed continuously and feeling surrounded all the time by people while still maintaining a welcoming smile, when they might have the image that he was a man of great order, work and dedication, but without that extraordinary relational capacity that he shows today , the Pope replied, ‘It is true, I have changed, it is the action of the Holy Spirit.’ The Church always trusts in the action of the Spirit.

“It is common to observe this kind of fear of any kind of transformation not only within the Church, in other fields, such as politics, as well. We have seen it in Cuba in the face of the new mentality that demands the reality of today. The nation’s highest authorities have expressed that this change of mindset in people is difficult to understand that we are facing new and very changing times. I was referring in the Pastoral Council that we must work on the kind of education for children, in the type of catechetical formation, of formation in the Christian life of these children, all this must be transformed. There are phrases that repeatedly become common to us and even ‘normal’. For example, ‘children must be cared for because they are the future of the Church.’ And children are not the future of the Church, children are Churches. The Church is made up of children, young people, adults, the elderly. It is not caring to secure the future, it is that they are present and part of the Church. Both the child and the adult have to learn to be missionary disciples, but each from their condition. That’s a change that seems simple and it’s not easy for it to heat up.”

Pope Francis himself has insisted that we must stop being a referent Church, enclosed in itself and go out to the existential peripheries. The Church in Cuba, from the ENEC, an event in which you participated in a very committed way, is an “outing” Church. From this experience that our Church has already experienced, how do you think the meeting with these “existential peripheries” that the Pope mentions should take place? Does the Church in Cuba have identified what are our “existential peripheries”?

“The peripheries do not coincide, we would say, with the waists of material misery that may exist in every country, in every city. They are not simply geographical, delimitable as on a map. As a Church, we need a social plane that allows us to identify that we have peripheral people in our dealings with what is the Christian message, to what is the same faith, to what is the presence of a Christian in the world, to what is the message of peace and reconciliation that the Church brings. There are those who are totally alien, distant, and even see the Church with suspicion.

“Historical conditionings, bad testimonies of Christians, an old mindset, hard or little open, a Church very enclosed in itself for different reasons, sometimes by self-protection in the face of a medium that is hostile to it, has led us to have people who are strange to the Church and who, at the same time, are very close to it. A few steps from a center or a parish house, we find people who feel a long distance from that place, we have not been able to build a bridge or go out to meet the other.

“Going out to meet is not taking a great journey or moving miles, but simply leaving oneself to go to the other and realize what their needs are, their expectations and even their prejudices, to share with them joy, all that is humanly acceptable that fills a family. In all this there is a manifestation of ‘I am like you’, ‘I am by your side’, ‘I understand your suffering’, ‘I go to your needs when I can’, ‘I reach out to you’, ‘I look at you with sympathy’, ‘I do not take into account your face, your mood, if you bear a serious face’, ‘I want to break that wall’. There are the peripheries. The mission begins today in front of the parish house.

“The Church on the way out is a Church that is not strange, that does not become very self-sufficient. It is not a closed society that is content to admit partners so that they feel good and do not want to be disturbed and enjoy among them something that only they share. That’s not the Church. A Swedish professor of Comparative Religion once stopped by Havana and wanted to talk to me. He said, ‘I have asked the young people of Cuba what the Church means to them, and you know what they have told me?’ I asked him where he had found them and questioned them and he replied that in the Malecon. The youth’s response was more or less this: ‘If the Church knew what it means to us, it would come closer to us.’ We don’t get to them, it’s true, there’s a wall of separation between them and us that we must break.”

And why doesn’t it break?

“First because of the variability of that world on the periphery, someone may come forward one day, look, pass and go on. St Augustine said, ‘I fear Jesus that passes.’ It goes through people’s lives many times and at that time there is no one who is able to welcome, to say a word, to invite to pass, for having images of a more tense past, from within the Church they see that person or that group at the door and question the right, ‘What will that group want?’ In our diocese there is a young priest who approached the Church as a university student. He was not baptized, he would come one night on the bus that would bend in front of a church and see it open, they would spend twelve o’clock at night and it was very crowded, with many people; got off, came in for the first time and forever. But his comment was, ‘No one came up to me, I went Sunday after Sunday and no one came to me, until I walked forward and approached a group of young people who sang in the choir and, little by little, were accepting my presence.’ But not everyone does what that young man, it might be that someone else passes, looks but doesn’t get off or, perhaps, when he’s not welcomed, he decides not to come back. Many things converge, but what cannot fail in us is, first, the welcome and then the exit. The important thing is that I welcome the human being where he is and lead him to a higher humanity, and that is where the possibility of Christianity comes out afterwards. Christianity is humanity.”

Do we have peripheries within the Church? I think of the single women who are in our communities, homosexuals, young women who have at some point had abortion, syncetic people, members of the Communist Party…

“The Church in Cuba, in general, has been welcomed by single women, homosexuals, syncretics, communists, atheists. Even in difficult times, when some kind of person was carried very reluctantly by social structures, the Church was, say, tolerant and welcoming in the good sense of the word, always considering with mercy. We have been a Church that has practiced Christian doctrine, which is enshrined in the Code of Canon Law, but we have done so with a very great sense of understanding and mercy, without varying anything strictly requested by the Church in her legislation. The Church in Cuba has tried to be very understanding in general. Sometimes some priest who comes from abroad has a hardness that our Cuban priest does not have.

“Sometimes the demands for baptism have become excessive. And baptism we have to see it as what it is, a gift from God. We cannot over-ask the person who comes to baptize a child. We have priests who have not wanted to baptize a child because he is not from the ward or is not from the parish area. This cannot be the case, since the person feels that he is before a totally bureaucratic organism and not in front of a community of faith. When there was a streak in Cuba of demanding so many details to baptize a child, the number of baptisms dropped enormously. I remember the complaint from a lady who said to me, ‘I’ve been sleeping in the queue for three nights to buy my son a mattress, I come here and they ask me for thousands of things to be baptized. Is it that the Church is also going to make our lives impossible?’ There has to be personal attention to each family, to each individual, because we do not work with cases, we work with people. When I get to the specific person, I can’t have that stiffness. Baptism must be, as Father Arroyo (q.p.d.) said, an unforgettable day in the life of the family.”

This Council, specifically, is held three years after submitting its resignation to the Holy Father as stipulated in the Code of Canon Law, which will take effect when the Pope decides. Do you have any idea when?

“The Holy Father has said to me, ‘Your letter is in my drawer, we must wait another moment a little more conducive and then we will see.’ I have no idea when it will be, I think it’s, perhaps, this year. Most of the cardinals are longer, they give us two years, although I’m going for three. There is an absolute limit: the eighties, but, honestly, I do not expect to reach that limit, because one already has more risks of getting sick and losing faculties.”

Considering that you are the longest-staying bishop in which you were first a diocese and then a Haban archdiocese, are you concerned about retirement? Have you thought about what you’re going to do next?

“It is already thirty-three years as archbishop, with very interesting experiences. I’m not worried about retirement. I assume it with a very Christian sense of life. When I was appointed bishop, many people, including other bishops, came up to me to say, ‘Oh what has fallen upon you.’ I was forty-two years old and it seemed to me that I was still too young, yet I could not accept that spirit of fear, of fear so I could overcome myself. I’ve never been able to face life like that. That is why I was very happy when Francis, newly elected Pope, said, ‘For me this has been a surprise, a joy, and may God forgive me.’ Then I was more explicit in telling a journalist, “I waited for the day of my priesthood, of my priestly ordination, and I was very happy, I think a priest should be happy to be a priest, if he could not be.” And it is true, the day I was appointed bishop, it happened to me anyway, I was happy and I cannot say anything else because it would be an insincerity, but people related that appointment to an honor and a burden, and I did not think of honor or burden, I would be prepared to live a new ministry to serve the Church and if I assumed it with sadness and despondency I would not be worthy of that.

“I think retirement would face it in the same way. I have faced it already, since before, because I have been conditioning the place where I will live, very close to the archbishopric, in what is today the Padre Félix Varela Cultural Center and in the same space where Cardinal Arteaga’s rooms were. Yes, I’ve thought about what I’ll do next. Pastoral life must continue to have, I will attend somewhere, I will visit somewhere, I will move from one community to another, I will receive visitors. Some people have recommended me to write my memoirs, and if God will allow me I will write them or dictate them. I will have to continue to attend, for example, the Consistory, because even if I am more than eighty years old, as a cardinal it is an obligation. I will attend and assume any shipment of the Pope, I hope to travel to some places that for lack of time I have not had the possibility to know. How many times have I been invited to Chile!, it is a country I have never visited and would love to see. I would like to take this time to visit all those small communities that I have never visited or that I have been in them very quickly, now I would like to be to share and know… I’m out of my way about those communities that are in the middle of the country, in a house, in a batey, and that are magnificent.”

Could retreating to a place so close to the archbishop’s habitual residence not create problems for his successor?

“I have been recommended to retreat to a more remote place so as not to make the other bishop jealous, but I do not see or believe it. When I arrived at this headquarters, I still lived and even presided over some celebrations, Archbishop Evelio Díaz, and had also passed through the archdiocese Monsignor Francisco Oves. Monsignor Evelio lived in a very uncomfortable place, the poor archbishop was not well housed, he himself did not take care of this building and was living in his brother’s house, in a room located on a third floor. He attended for a long time the chapel of Tarará, until they closed it, but invited him to preach everywhere, patron saint festivities, days of precept. Everything happened when I was here, it’s more, sometimes I wouldn’t even know. Monsignor Evelio preached very nice, he was a poet. People enjoyed listening to it.”

I’ll be very honest with you (I interrupt), I don’t think the same will happen to you.

“But it’s not because the bishop finds out. You have to know, of course, but it doesn’t matter.”

But to this reality we would also add that you are cardinal, the only cardinal in Cuba and as a public figure of our Church has played a very important role in dialogue with the authorities of the country.

“That is true, but when I have dialogued with the authorities I have always done so on behalf of the Church and not in a personal way. The city of Havana is a very important square. Here is the apostolic nuncio, here are the highest instances of government, we have diplomats, the foreign press and, territorially, it is an extensive and varied diocese in its composition. It covers Havana, Isla de la Juventud and territories of the provinces of Mayabeque and Artemis. During my episcopate I have shared with very popular nuncios, who have visited all the parishes, and for me it has been an honor and even a break that they officiate a celebration, preach… But even if the nuncio goes, and even confirms, because some have done it, here it is well known who the bishop is, people come to know it very well.

“It’s a good, very difficult square. It is the place where there will also be a bishop emeritus and that, I recognize, must be taken into account. It is the square that also has auxiliary bishops, where much collaboration is needed, and all these people, at any given time, are a great help and benefit the life of the diocese, enrich it. I think no bishop in Cuba is jealous, and the one they will appoint will come out of them.”

But Francis may surprise even with one whose name is not on the list of possible candidates…

“Well… He will count on me, of course [Laugh].”

What are the biggest differences between the Church you found fifty years ago, when you were ordained a priest, and the Church you find at the time of your retirement as Archbishop of Havana?

“I started at a time when the universal Church had just celebrated the Second Vatican Council. There was great hope, great anticipation, but there was a tremendous shock in that Church, and that was the turn of living it to Pope Paul VI, a man of great suffering and great intelligence, who knew how to carry forward the Council, conclude it and begin to put it into practice. At the request of the priests and religious themselves, many outings of ministry and consecrated life were given. Today these outings continue to be granted, but the numbers have fallen enormously. At the time, this seemed like an accumulation of people with problems, as there was never a reduction to the lay state. It was really weird. It was then that the number of religious, of religious, the sacred signs of the Church were lost, and although with the introduction of the languages of the people, the liturgy gained greatly and the masses were revived, the people went further than they should and the churches were stripped of the images that had popular devotion, there began to be a divorce between the traditional people and that transformative elite. All that caused the Church to suffer, while having a new vision about the world and an availability to proclaim the Gospel, was a Church that was going, in the coming years, to suffer the hangover of the Council, resistance and misinterpretation.

“In that post-reconciled environment, but in the midst of Cuba, I began my priesthood. That tremendous thing, that change, and every revolution shudders and is afraid had happened, added that our Church suffered greatly from the loss of so many religious, so many priests who went abroad, some by force and others by choice. It was a church reduced in number. I returned from my studies in Canada with joy, gladly, and I always thank God for coming back. I remember at the end of that fourth Mass I celebrated on a Sunday, while taking off my ornaments, I said to myself, ‘Nowhere in the world could I have a ministry as cute as the one I have in Cuba.’ I was very happy.

“Permission for us to enter the country the seminarians who were away (that was after Girón) was like for a hundred and we returned no more than fifty-two or fifty-three. After that came the year 1966, which proved very difficult for the Church, a year of many events triggered, the Church was again under a negative look, there were problems with catechesis and catechists, the little ones could not go to catechesis if they did not attend with the parents. The number of children in catechesis decreased considerably. The year 1964 was somewhat quiet, but in 1965 the exodus from Camarioca occurred, and in 1966 there was the imprisonment of Father Miguel Loredo1 OFM, some priests were sent to the Military Production Aid Units (UMAP), there are times with many difficulties.

“After these difficult times for some (because Father Loredo was ten years in prison), we chose to remain in the Church, but a Church in exodus. At that time the Varadero air bridge was enabled, every day from two hundred to three hundred people out there, many of them Catholic. The 1970s were also very tough, although people’s internal economy and food distribution improved somewhat. The Church gradually moved forward, still with great difficulty in those years. Both decades, the decades of the sixty-seventies were very difficult for the Church.

“It was in the 1980s that ENEC was prepared,2 that it came to be like a takeoff for the Church. The ENEC speaks of the Incarnate Church, a prayerless and missionary Church. People accepted very well prayer, but not incarnate. Our mindsets permeated by years of suffering within the Church could not assume that reality of being incarnated, sown, getting inside the flesh. Many people did not agree to be part of Cuba’s social and political life and offered resistance. They said that an incarnate Church was not, and was not, moreover, a phrase coming from the Holy See, but born here, from the Church of Cuba itself. Our people did not assimilate at first ‘incarnate’. However, missionary was accepted, and that’s where we went. We then began the Mission of the Cross of Evangelization to celebrate the V Centenary of the discovery of America. Nine years of mission!

“A very simple wooden cross was touring all over Cuba, city by city, to the last and most remote of the island. They were the first door-to-door missions to invite people to share the Good News, to proclaim Jesus among us. We were very well received. Today that cross is in the sanctuary of La Caridad, in El Cobre. The desire and the fact that we were a missionary Church prompted us to open ourselves to the people and to begin to open the doors of the churches, although here it is worth a clarification. Even today, our churches in Havana are not open enough, many remain closed all day, others open a grated before Mass, but it is not a church that bears the witness requested by Pope Francis, who has insisted that they remain open.

“During this mission after ENEC, we realized that the Christian faith was alive in the people of Cuba. At every step of the towns and cities, creativity increased. It was an awakening of the Church that facilitated the mission; but what moved the Church the most was undoubtedly the possibility of openness.

“Then came the special period and, in the midst of this stage, Caritas was born, which has also opened many doors of contact with people in need, with the sick, with donations that have grown and even with a slight presence in the midst of disasters. Although as an institution, the Church in Cuba does not have this large volume of money, it manages very well what it is given and tries to increase it by other means to have other aids that add to those of Caritas, such as that of the Knights of the Order of Malta. In other words, the charitable action of the Church is also very important. Benedict XVI said so in his letter on charity and Pope Francis takes it up when he says: ‘Work with the poor and help to the needy is an eminent form of evangelization.’ Then we had the opportunity to visit the prisons and organize a prison pastoral care that has also included the families of the inmates. Today we can celebrate catechesis and masses every month in detention centres.

“But without a doubt, it was Pope John Paul II’s visit that totally changed the perception that could be in The Cuban Society of the Church. Already Caritas, during the early years of the nineties, had given as a testimony that we wanted good, that we wanted to shake hands with everyone. At the time, the lack of medicine was very large and we were bringing large quantities of medicines from abroad and handing them out… And once this pastoral action has been experienced in society, of service to others, Pope John Paul II comes. The greatest thing about this fact is the self-awareness of the Cuban Church, but also of the Cuban people that the Church is present in the midst of it. A Church that could organize a visit like that, a Church that could find such a great welcome in the people. When the Pope arrives and goes to the squares, our Church first goes out into the street.

“I remember the impact that the sign of Christ had on the facade of the National Library, which said ‘I trust you’. When it was completed, I was in the square, and when the figure of Christ was fully visible, there was a tremendous exclamation in that square that was full and everyone spontaneously began to applaud. Two Protestant shepherds who were near me hugged me. They do not accept the images, but at that time it was the joy of a faith shared among all, it was the whole people who were seeing the familiar image of the Sacred Heart, the same one that always remained in many houses of Cuba. That was unforgettable and unforgettable, and was generated by the visit of John Paul II. Later we had in Havana the inter-American bishops, which passed very well.

“The Church in Cuba has always taken small, sustained, progressive steps forward, there has never been a step back in the life of the Church. What you get once, is perennially, decade by decade, and so it has been to this day. Never, in times of crisis, that there have been great ones, and in which all kinds of dialogue has been suspended and we have been here as juxtaposed, without being united, in those tremendous moments, never turned back.”

It is clear to all that you are our archbishop, pastor of the Church who pilgrims in Havana, yet at the same time you are credited with diplomatic skill and identified as a public figure of social and political scope, something that is often controversial in the history of the Church. How much shepherd is there in the skilled diplomat, and how much skilled diplomat is there in the pastor?

“It seems to me that what has been defined as diplomacy is the capacity for dialogue. Pope Paul VI said, ‘Dialogue is the new name of love.’ And love is the Christian thing, it’s the same as a shepherd. There’s all the logic we can crumble a little bit more. Pope Benedict XVI in his last conversation with me, seven or eight months before his resignation, asked me if the Church in Cuba was for dialogue. He asked me abruptly, because we were talking about his trip to Cuba. I said yes, and that the younger ones were also about dialogue. ‘Perhaps the younger ones did not experience the great difficulties the Church had in the past, and they do not realize how much today’s situation has changed,’ the Holy Father said. I said, ‘Holiness, there is also another factor, those who lived through a very difficult time, of schools in the countryside, of much indoctrination of an ideological type that made them fatigued, to tire, have become, perhaps, as distant internally, as viscerally alien.’ And the Pope replied, ‘but dialogue is the only way.’ I said yes, that everyone, as Christians, understands that this is the only way. And he says to me, ‘The Church is not in the world to change governments, but to transform with the gospel the hearts of men, and these men will change the world according to the disposition of providence.’

“On the day Pope Francis was elected, I was traveling in the same microbus of him coming from the Sistine Chapel for the house of Santa Marta. It was raining, it was cold, we’d come sitting next to each other and I said, ‘Jorge, I’d like to talk to you a little bit.’ and asked me, ‘When?’ I said, ‘Right now, we have forty minutes before lunch.’ He asked me if my room was big, I said yes, it was the one that had touched me in the raffle, he had been touched by a little girl and on the fifth floor. He said, ‘I go down to your room.’ ‘I want to talk to you about Latin America,’ I said, ‘because you’re going to be Pope this afternoon.’ ‘Well, if you don’t turn the tortilla, ‘ he narrowed down.

“The conversation was about Latin America, as it is a region where there have been many changes, which have been very favorable in the sense of their social policy. I, when I was vice president of CELAM, was involved in drafting those documents that spoke of the great difference between rich and poor and the dependence that Latin America had in the United States. Even the difference between rich and poor remains great, but there is no such dependence on the United States, no one would think of talking about it in a document today. ‘All Latin America is united, Cuba is the one who presides over CELAC,’ I said. ‘Those changes we would have wanted to make with our people who studied the Social Doctrine of the Church in our universities, but it was not, they were made by Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, the Kirchner, Lula da Silva, Rafael Correa, Daniel Ortega, all with an inspiration coming from behind, from fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution. And in the face of these changes,” I said, “I seem to see the Church as expectant. And what does the Church expect these governments to pass and others to give it a place of privilege and favor it, sometimes this expectation becomes critical.’ And Cardinal Bergoglio, for he was not yet Pope, replied, ‘No, no, the Church can never be at expectation, let alone a critical expectation. The Church can never be a mere spectator, these processes the Church has to accompany them in dialogue.’ I then told him my last conversation with Benedict XVI, and when I reached the end of my story and told him the phrase that closed that encounter, he was thrilled: ‘Oh, what a phrase! I’d put this on a banner at the entrance to every city in the world.’

“Look, dialogue is a key word, dialogue is what has been here between the United States and Cuba, dialogue is what facilitated the Pope with his management, what he wants to facilitate in the places of conflict, going to extremes. He, as pastor, like Pope Benedict XVI, knows that dialogue is the diplomatic part, the only Vatican diplomacy, the ecclesial diplomacy of love. I am not a diplomat of the common type, I am not given to drafting well-made, formaltic, but being a person of dialogue, that is. And dialogue is the new name of love. Years ago, Cuban bishops spoke in Rome with Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, who was then Secretary of State to Pope John Paul II, but had extensive experience in Vatican diplomacy since the pontificates of John XXIII and Paul VI regarding dialogue with the countries of the so-called Soviet bloc, with opposing and openly hostile governments. We were engrossed in listening to him, as he recounted all the holy see’s political work towards the then socialist countries, he was the father of that political work. He told us how he came dressed as a civilian, the same to the Soviet Union, to Hungary, to Czechoslovakia, to Poland… And he certainly accomplished very important things. He said, ‘You know what’s going on, that I’m small and I talk short, the Pope is big and speaks loudly. That’s very important now.’ ‘I have always told ourselves,’ he told us, ‘that all human beings are equal, communists have the same anxieties as me, they have the same family and heart problems that I can have, they can have the same cravings for peace and happiness as mine; they may have very different language, but in the end I’m talking to a human being who feels, who suffers, who loves, and I’ve always thought about it.’ He ended by assuring us, ‘It seems that those who have lived a long time in communist countries, are surprised to hear this, because I like many evenings with the Holy Father and he stays very serious when I say these things’…, and he looked at all of us. A Cuban bishop asked him, ‘Eminence, what is your weapon for that diplomatic capacity?’ and immediately replied, ‘My answer is nothing diplomatic, it will baffle them, but it is the only true one. My answer is love.’

“Then we must never despise the word diplomatic when we speak of Church diplomacy. The diplomacy of the Holy See does not oppose the diplomacy of the pastor, on the contrary, it integrates in such a way that diplomacy is very pastoral and much needed to the pastor. And if he lacked this diplomacy, he would lack a very important element which is the style of our pastoral care: love. That is why everything that has been done about Cuba has been done in that way, in silence, because it has been acted on with a very great desire to serve, and that is what is needed, I think, with or without results, but that is. As Pope Benedict XVI told me, ‘it is the only way of the Church’. And I insist, dialogue is the new name of love, according to Pope Paul VI. Therefore, it is through Christian love that these things must be done, I believe. It is not the alabardero or clamorous love that uses lofty statements, it is love that is not irritated with evil, it does not do wrong, everything awaits… It has to be like this. It’s the fundamental attitude for everything from welcoming the smallest to hosting the biggest.”

In 2010 the Church began a dialogue with the country’s authorities. This dialogue had, at least as visible results, the release of prisoners and the return of some state-occupied temples. However, many within the Church believe that this dialogue was not institutionalized, nor did it reach all levels. What’s this all about?

“The passage was of enormous significance and the Church’s participation in that release of prisoners, one by one, every name, every prisoner, was something very great in itself. The return of churches occurred in a second moment, but continues progressively. They’re returning one temple, then another. Other events happened silently, such as getting some religious to whom the authorities did not allow it to enter the country, a fact that the Cuban president himself considered an offense to the Church.

“Dialogue continues, without a doubt, it is easy to realize only by seeing what the National Pilgrimage of our Lady of Charity meant. In European countries this does not happen, roads are not closed or the entire traffic surveillance service is made available to an event like this. Those policemen who still greet us everywhere today were those who went on motorcycles, proudly in front of Our Lady, taking care of her, protecting her. Our Lady stood in front of the schools, visited hospitals, prisons, maternal homes, companies, went through military units and before her they stood in care. These were chances that were given for this.

“There is still dialogue, there is no dialogue break. We hope that an agreement can take place at the Holy See level with the Cuban State on the Church in Cuba, which collects everything that has been achieved, that it is necessary that this will be maintained forever and that there will also be an open framework for moving forward. But, without a doubt, a process of great fluidity has been established that must continue.”

In the midst of the process for restoring diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, both sides vehemently recognized the role of Pope Francis. It is known that the Church has been advocating for reconciliation a long time ago, yet some are against and others in favor of this normalization in relationships. What concrete proposal does the Church have to “straighten the crooked path” and heal the wounds that in many Cubans has caused this long period of confrontation between the United States and Cuba and which, at the same time, has had serious consequences within Cuba?

“What everyone, in Cuba, and the Church is present throughout the territory, is that the people in general rejoice in this new situation, in the face of this new possibility of relations between the two countries. As it is something new, everyone understands at the level of their chances of understanding the political reality of the world, their personal interests. There have been people, not our Church, even a member of the Communist Party, of a high intellectual level, who has said to me, ‘I find all this very well, but what does this relationship bring to my table tomorrow and from here to a month in my pocket?’

“Many people in the village suffer from this skepticism, we said very economically, which is only limited to the fact of their table and their pocket. Such a thought makes them victims of an individualism that has been created in Cuba, perhaps as an exaggerated reaction to collectivism. People tend to focus on their own problem, there are those who are happy to think that very soon there will be an improvement while others are skeptical because they believe there will be no improvement for them. It is difficult for one type of person and a certain level, I do not mean intellectual level or political level, but of belonging, to be able to think of people as such, in nation, not to realize that what happened on December 17 was a historical event, one of the greatest in the history of Cuba, as was the visit of Pope John Paul II , as was the Cuban Revolution…

“The thought must be: we, in this new reality, will try to make sure that everyone can improve their situation. Others have a thought as innoble as that expressed by a lady who is about to sell her house and emigrate to America: ‘How do you feel about how these two have agreed…?’, and gives them a very ugly qualifier. ‘All to us off. Because I was going to sell my house, I’ve almost sold it because I want to leave, and now the Cuban Adjustment Act will be over.’ He is the self-centered person, so he cares nothing, he doesn’t really understand that there are goods greater than his own, that sometimes it’s murky that good he’s looking for. It takes altruism, patriotic capacity, of high thought that leads us to think of the nation, in the future, in a very broad way, and I, as part of that reality, participating in it. Perhaps all this happens because Cubans have become accustomed not to participate, but to be spectators of events, but the action remains for history, the role of both presidents, of the Pope, of the Church. I have had the opportunity to converse with other participants, Americans and Cubans, and they have told me, ‘I believe that the Church must continue to play a role in this process that must continue.'”

To what extent will an improvement in relations between the two countries be beneficial to the Church?

“For the Church it will be very beneficial. I would say to Mrs Roberta Jacobson, Undersecretary of State of the American Government, who came to see me: ‘I hope that soon all these financial constraints we have will be eased, because the Church has had to live a real ordeal to receive the help that comes from abroad to contribute to the charitable works we develop.’ Last year, for example, we had a critical situation with the elders’ canteens, as the funds coming from the American Episcopal Conference, Catholic Reliefe Service (Caritas of the United States), the Knights of the Order of Malta, even aid coming from third countries such as Havana, Cuba or any other territory name on the island , were blocked. Aid that may come from Ireland, as from France or any other country. We didn’t know what means to look for. She lamented a lot of this, and said, ‘I think this whole situation will soon be alleviated.’ Here is a detail that is very important for the charitable mission of the Church, for her presence in society and that can, with the new measures, be improved.”

I would ask you a question, which was also asked to the Pope, but I would love to know your answer. Do you like, have you liked, being archbishop of Havana?

“At first I was a little scared, because I found that there had been a lot of problems here before. I have great affection for my immediate predecessor, who died a few years ago, Archbishop Francisco Oves, whose remains we were able to bring to the Cathedral, and there deposit them as was his wish. He died outside Cuba, sick. Actually, he got sick at sixty-something years old, but his nerves broke here. It was his turn to live his episcopate in this seat during a very difficult time, the seventies. He was a man of dialogue in front of many people who did not want dialogue, for me one of the brightest bishops that Cuba has ever had in the last century, a man of great intelligence, with great charity, simplicity, poverty, but who did find himself broken. In Havana they wanted it, the laity wanted it, the Cuban clergy appreciated it too. After almost three years of apostolic administration by the Bishop of Santiago de Cuba who came every fortnight to Havana, I came to this archdiocese.

“Still difficult times passed. The Exodus of Mariel had just passed, the diocese was a little dismantled. I remember that my inauguration was joined by the Archbishop of Miami, the Archbishop of Panama, an Archbishop of Mexico, and the Secretary of the Congregation for the Bishops of the Holy See, who brought me a ring of the council sent to me by the Pope and which I used until I was appointed cardinal. I could hear all those people supporting me, their help, and I couldn’t hide some fear for what I’d start with. The nuncio proposed a house to me in Miramar because this house was destroyed, and according to the nuncio himself, this house was what made the previous bishop sick. When my mother found out we were coming here she became very sad, during my years as bishop in Pinar del Río she had become so accustomed to the people of that wonderful diocese that it hurt to leave her behind.

“Well, Miramar’s house was fabulous, with excellent conditions, but I wasn’t convinced by the idea of leaving this building. Regla’s father came and said, ‘I hear you’re leaving here. This ward is used to seeing the bishop, if you leave here, remember, the master’s eye fattens the horse. I’d better be.’ I reassured him that he wasn’t going to move anywhere else. And so it was, I stayed. I told the nuncio that the money I would use to fix Miramar’s house, we used it for this house, adding a larger amount, of course, because this was practically in ruins. I was very pleased with the availability of priests.

“At first I felt a little strange, I’m not a habanero, I’m a thug, and the thugs get very attached to their city. I didn’t know Havana, I didn’t know the neighborhoods, it didn’t locate me… I went out a lot with the chauffeur to see and learn the streets, I didn’t understand the division of vicarages, there were many churches compared to those of other dioceses, many were destroyed, there were chapels in bad shape. I felt a little lost in the midst of this great archdiocese, but I immediately set out to see what was needed and one of the first steps was to seek international contacts for aid. At the same time I had the comfort of visiting these parishes and seeing the joy of the people. I was scared, I was forty-five years old and I was only three years old who was a bishop. Thank God I soon felt comforted, Havana is not cold, it is a capital of warm people, very friendly and affectionate. I had people who followed me everywhere I went; an older couple, a lady named Charity, who must be ninety years old and still lives in Santiago de las Vegas, and another from Lateran, found them anywhere. I myself took care of the youth team of the diocese and youth ministry. I began to organize young Easters, to have very often encounters with them, I found it interesting to spend time together, listen to them, speak to them, advise them; many have left Cuba, and others, they are there, have remained in the Church in a very committed way.

“Shortly after I was in Havana I went to Rome, had to go, first to find the pallium of the archbishops, then I do not know what, and taking advantage of my trips to Rome, I went to the Congregation for bishops and said that I needed an auxiliary bishop. They said no, I was still young. ‘Do what you have to do and at least for ten years to come you shouldn’t have an auxiliary bishop.’ I said to myself, ‘Hey, but how big everything is there…’. And so it was, when time passed, from Rome I was told that I needed two auxiliary bishops. That’s the way it is, two, and not one like I always thought.

“In Havana I have felt good. Those of us who are Western, I would say from Santa Clara to Pinar del Río, have very similar characteristics. I can assure you, I was parish priest fifteen years in Matanzas and three years bishop in Pinar del Río, they are good people, what good people! In one and the other diocese I was very happy. Over time, Havana was organized and I began to ordain priests. Some of those parents who welcomed me have already died, but I never forget their availability and affection for myself. Others, who are still, such as Archbishop Ramón Suárez Polcari, Archbishop René Ruiz and Archbishop Juan de Dios, had been my students at the Seminary. To all of them, and to many more, were added those that I ordered, of them died Father Jesus Cairo and in Miami Father Joaquin Paret.

“A lot of pain causes me when a priest leaves the country, though for the number of ordained priests, this has not been the diocese in which proportionately they have left more. Some left sick and already died; but those who have left lately cause me a lot of pain, a lot of pain.”

How much of Father Jaime, the parish priest of Jagey Grande, the Cathedral of Matanzas, and so many small rural communities, are there in Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Archbishop of Havana?

“I’ll answer you with the opinion of an employee of this house. A few years ago, I was at the door of the archbishopric, I was running the first fortnight of December and preparing the birth that I put in every year, and that every time I enrich it with something new, I have enriched it until now, I do not know if at Christmas it will still touch me, but well… While I was there came several people who wanted to see me, and there, standing, I talked to them. This employee comes and says, ‘You’ve been a parish priest all your life.’ And it’s the truth. I can’t see Christmas coming, as I can’t see Lent coming, without me thinking about what will be done in those times. All my life I’ve been a parish priest.

“I cannot fail to have such a very diocesan priest criterion made for the parish, to deal with the people. The faithful of the Cathedral, for example, have a relationship with me as a parish priest, and I am not their parish priest, I am used to going some other Sunday, in Advent, Lent, very marked celebrations. When I was appointed bishop, my mother, after crying a lot because he had to leave Matanzas, thus replied to someone who asked him what would happen to me from that appointment. ‘All I ask is that he remain the same, that he doesn’t change because he’s a bishop, that he keeps playing with people, talking to everybody, and even making jokes.’ I told him I wasn’t going to change.

“When I arrived in Pinar del Río I found myself, first, very alone, very isolated, and that caused me a very great suffering. I remember at nine o’clock at night, the vicar, Father Cayetano, who lived there with me, would come down and close the bishopric’s door with a huge iron. That lockdown caused me suffering that brought me to tears. It was not so in the cathedral of Matanzas, where after officiating four masses, well tired, I met long hours with the young people, with many young people, no matter if it rained or it was cold, they always went.

“That’s why I feel so close to the Pope, he says he can’t be alone. The priest who was my confessor and to whom I presented my vocation, told me when he knew that I wanted to be brother of the Christian schools: ‘Brother, you?’ I replied that I liked teaching, and then assured me, ‘No, you can be a priest. Do you know the joy you would give your bishop if you tell him you are going to the seminary? That is what is necessary, priests who teach, who do not make great discourses, but teach when they speak to the people. You like working with young people, that’s what it takes, priests who work with youth in parishes.’ I said, ‘But, oh father, loneliness, I don’t like loneliness.’ With Catholic Action I visited the peoples and saw the priest in that quartet on top of the sacristy, alone. And he said, ‘There’s only one who wants to be alone.’ And that’s how it’s been. I never had loneliness. When I went to Pinar del Río, that episcopal solitude that I talked about, soon disappeared, I started visiting the parishes, I came home at 1 a.m., and in Havana it was the same. In Pinar the flow of people during the day is not so much, but here it is large, constant. In the first moments it was day and night, at any time I could see a cure, and then, little by little, I organized myself and put in hours until the time came when I was organized. I managed to have time to pray a little, have dinner and then go out for a village and officiate masses. I had confirmations from each other, in different places. That was all at night, because during the day most people work. There were nights when, honestly, I was glad to be alone, to be at home, in the company always of my mother, of course, who was by my side until she died. Those nights I took advantage of them to write some homily, read.

“In Havana I have never been alone, because, besides, the relationship of those who are not next to one, is not of people who ignore, but of people whom I can call on the phone and say, ‘Hey, you know this… what do you think of such a thing?’ And they tell me, they tell me, they talk, we plan a meeting. I’m not alone, I’ve never felt alone. So that phrase from my confessor in youth I’m sure will also apply to my retirement season. I don’t think I’ll be alone, there’ll always be someone around. I won’t let myself be alone. If you don’t look for me, I’ll go out and get it. I would like, if the Lord gives me life and if the Holy Father gives me time to make it possible, have an church to attend as a parish priest.

“In me what lives on is the parish priest, and if I had had doubts about my vocation to the diocesan clergy, I would not have had any left after being parish priest in Matanzas, but after being bishop I am even more convinced: there is nothing more interesting than being a parish priest.” Ω


1 Friar Michelangelo Loredo, a Franciscan priest, was arrested with Friar Serafín Ajuria on the first Monday of Resurrection in 1966 at the Convent of St. Francis of Assyses. Both were accused of hiding in this place, located in Cuba and Amargura streets, in Old Havana, the fugitive Angel M. Betancourt, responsible for the attempted diversion of a Cuban plane bound for Miami and the murder of the co-pilot and escort of the ship. Despite the lack of evidence and based on the accusation of a single person, until shortly before him, Father Loredo was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, of which he served almost ten years in prison. Friar Seraphim Ajuria was acquitted.

2 ENEC: Cuban National Eclecial Meeting. It was held in Havana from February 17 to 23, 1986. It was attended by all cuban bishops at the time, along with a representation of priests, religious and lay people from the seven dioceses with which Cuba had at the time. This meeting is considered by many to be the most important meeting held by the Church in Cuba.

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