“Mission of the priest in a changing and complex Cuba”
“Mission is not what we do, mission is what we are.”
(Gerald Timoner III, Master of the Order of Preachers).
We have Saint John Mary Vianney present in his day, Saint Catherine, for being where we are, and I entrust myself to the intercession of Saint John XXIII who told us that God had granted him the grace to make what was difficult easy, so that help me present this talk with a topic of so many edges, in a simple way.
Dear priests: With you and like you, I am living this last stage of my priestly life, at the service of our Cuban people.
Monsignor Juan, our dear pastor, surprised me the other afternoon with a request: to share with you what is the mission of the priest, in this hour that we are living.
I greatly appreciate the confidence you show me in asking me to speak to you about a subject that is neither easy nor comfortable for me: It is true that for 28 years I have shared the same fate with you, seeing, knowing and experiencing the reality, harsh reality, of every day. But, being a foreigner, it sounds to me that I am daring and I am profaning something so sacred, such as the feelings of you who were born here, are children from here, have suffered what I know only from hearsay, but I have not suffered it. I feel like a theorist.
I dare to remember the past with you, not out of longing but with deep gratitude: I feel fortunate to have visited Cuba for eight years before my final arrival on October 15, 1993, in the middle of the Special Period, to meet people and brothers and sisters. that they were true witnesses, they had very little but they were very happy. In those times I also heard the call to change one world for the other, I too feel like I am from both worlds like Fr. Bartolomé, he came from sober Castile to a country brimming with life. Here, Fr. José Manuel Fernández (Father Pepe) and Fr. Domingo Romero gave me a great gift: the gift of their simple, coherent, dedicated life. The solitude of the Lateran impressed me, it was only muffled every afternoon because another witness came with punctual fidelity: the Jesuit Father Luis Peláez, and contemplated them sitting in the old armchairs of the gallery. One day they shared something unexpected with me: on Christmas Eve, the Jesuits of Villa San José invited them to share with them, the Christmas Eve celebrated by Dominicans with Jesuits, Jesuits with Dominicans was unique.
And, in 1996, I met a 16-year-old young man who wanted to be a preacher friar almost from the day of his baptism, this young man full of joy today is also a preacher friar and is the Rector of the Fr. Bartolomé de las Casas Center, his name is lester. Thus, the generations of yesterday and today come together and shake hands. Forgive me, Lester, but I’m so glad I can tell you right now.
I wish my words are not cold, I will speak to you in a simple way and perhaps conditioned by a very particular vision, from the height of my 86 years (I remember that Bishop Siro did not like the phrase too much: “Any time in the past was better ”, preferring that of Saint Augustine:“ Every time has its burden of goodness, worries and problems ”).
1.- Santo Tomás de Aquino, one of the advice that he gave to his disciple Juan de el was the following: “Always try to enter the sea by the river”. And in the river of my past is alive the memory of two realities that greatly gratify me. Here, in our Cuba, I have met people who have trusted me and entrusted themselves to me; without difference of creeds and ideologies. From the beginning, when we opened the Aula and the Fr. Bartolomé Center, our desire was to integrate and not exclude.
2.- I keep in mind the Latin expressions of scholasticism, when it designates the two fundamental terms of any human relationship: The terms A QUO AND AD QUEM.
A QUO, is always the starting point, the origin … For us, the term A QUO is the moment we are living: today, the here and now, the suffering of so many people who suffer with resignation their deficiencies and deprivations, the endless queues … until one day they took to the streets and we could see violent and sad scenes between children of the same town.
Our history is already marked by two 11. For years we have lived in the shadow of September 11, and this not only because it was a tragedy but because it is a symbol of the world in which we live. September 11 symbolizes the day of hidden and calculated violence. That day the hidden violence of our world culture became visible, the human community is broken by an escalation of inequalities.
In our Cuba, another 11, July, will be an unforgettable date that marks a before and after. It is no longer the same, because something has surfaced without expecting it: an unthinkable violence.
A new chapter has opened in Cuba. It is a chapter without any promise, except for the threat of intolerance.
And the term AD QUEM refers us to the goal, where we want to reach … After this 11J, at this time, what can the Church offer? Do we have any good news to share?
3.- The hierarchy, the priests and the laity have a task. To be shepherds and people of hope in times of despair, like Abraham (Rom 4: 18-21), who for this reason did not waver in his faith. A real hope is ready to give reasons, because a hope without reasons is a pure illusion that leads to disappointment and hopelessness.
I ask myself the following question: Are we prepared to give reasons in times of hopelessness?
I am going to refer to the three crises that affect the lives of our Cuban people and, therefore, our work as pastors.
In the first place, the global crisis of COVID-19, whose most significant spaces lie in the health system and in the death of many family and friends, worsened by the shortage of medicines and means.
Second, the economic crisis, aggravated by the task of monetary reorganization that has caused the rise in prices in the market, the increase in poverty and the lack of minimum resources in the lives of families.
And thirdly, the political crisis, which after the events of July 11, has generated a confrontational situation among Cubans, at the same time that it manifests the deepest desires of the citizens calling for social change. Obviously not all of us think the same.
4.- We, the priests, have an important task in this changing and complex Cuba.
The prophet Jeremiah mentions an oracle with God’s promise to his people.
a.- “I will give you shepherds according to my heart” (Jer. 3, 15). With these words of the prophet Jeremiah, God promises his people never to leave him deprived of shepherds who gather, guide and defend him.
“I will put pastors in front of them who will feed them and they will never be afraid or scared again” (Jr. 23, 4).
To be aware that we are pastors is to assume our priestly identity, it is to return to the source of our ministry. In our hands is the task of caring for, accompanying, guiding, protecting and defending the lives of our lay faithful and people of good will who seek God.
b.- “Shepherds who console the suffering of my people” (Is. 40, 11): Comfort is defined as the human capacity to accompany pain and suffering in situations of despair, grief and sadness. The Church in Cuba needs ministers of comfort and compassion.
To console affectively it is necessary to be good Samaritans capable of standing up, descending, approaching to know the situation of the other, there are other people’s sufferings that become their own, as Saint Gregory the Great says: “Only those who share the suffering can understand the fate of the who suffers and for the same to console him ”.
c.- In dealing with men, in everyday life, the priest must have human sensitivity to understand their needs and accept requests, include unspoken questions, share hopes, joys and the work of life ordinary and to be able to meet everyone, accompanying pain in its multiple manifestations from indifference to illness, from marginalization to ignorance, to material poverty … To be divine you have to start being human.
Someone has written that: “The calcification of the heart is a misfortune for the priest” (Juan Ma. Uriarte, Una Sensibilidad Sacerdotal, Ed. Sal Terrae).
5.- They have spoken about our situation:
a.- Our pastors, to whom the mission of mediating and dialogue at high levels corresponds in the first instance: “A favorable solution will not be reached by impositions, nor by calling for confrontation, but when mutual listening is exercised, They seek common agreements and concrete and tangible steps are taken that contribute with the contribution of all Cubans without exclusion, to build the “homeland of all and for the good of all.”
Violence breeds violence, today’s aggressiveness opens other wounds and increases resentments for tomorrow that will take a lot of work to overcome (…)
We invite everyone with serenity of spirit and good will, exercise listening, understanding and an attitude of respect towards the other, to seek together an adequate solution.
b.- The Consecrated Life, in communion with the important and inspiring message of our bishops, on July 12, told us: “As consecrated persons we live these events from faith and we also recognize in these claims of the people the voice of God . Those who took to the streets are not criminals, they are ordinary people of our town who found a way to express their discontent ”.
6.- Pope Francis not too long ago told us that it is good for the pastors of the Church to recognize the challenges of this time, of this hour in history. Faced with these new economic and social projects, with all the changes that they bring with them, the Church cannot remain a mere spectator, nor must it face the situation from the outside with excessive criticism. These processes must be accompanied from within through dialogue. “Dialogue is the only way, but it takes an attitude of availability for it” (Benedict XVI).
Let us bet on proposing ways of meeting and dialogue, which can lead to reconciliation and peace as the only valid alternative, let us be passionate about our time and start taking small steps in that direction. Let us bet on this laborious process (Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino, Encounter, dialogue and agreement, Ed. San Pablo 2017, P. 49 ff.)
7.- MEET THE FACE OF THE OTHER
One of the books that I have read several times is the Embrace of Jerusalem, by Valeria Martiano.
We read what Patriarch Atenágoras shares with us: for dialogue to take place, one must go to meet the other totally unarmed. Without prejudice, attentive and open to the other. He expressed it very well with one of his categorical phrases when he spoke of the need to meet the other’s face.
“Come, let’s look each other in the eye” (I read this phrase engraved on the pedestal of the statue of Athenagoras, at the Theological School of the Orthodox Archdiocese of America, in Boston).
Meet personally. “Seeing yourself, looking at yourself, recognizing yourself, is the way to overcome prejudices” (The embrace of Jerusalem, p. 23).
“You have to wage the toughest war, which is the war against yourself. You have to get to disarm. I have waged this war for many years. It has been terrible. But now I am unarmed. I am no longer afraid of anything, since Love destroys fear. I am disarmed with the will to be right, to justify myself by disqualifying others. I’m not on guard, jealously tense about my riches. I welcome and share. I don’t cling to my ideas or my projects. If they present me with better ones, or not even better but good ones, I accept them without regret. I have given up on making comparisons. What is good, true, real, for me is always the best. By that reason I am not afraid anymore. When you no longer have anything, you no longer have fear. If we disarm, if we dispossess ourselves, if we open ourselves to the man-God who makes all things new, he gives us a new time in which everything is possible. It is Peace! ” (Olivier Clément, Dialogues avec le Patriarche Athenágoras I, Ed. Fayard, Paris 1969, p.183. Translated and offered by Xavier Melloni).
8.- The Meeting has to be desired by both parties and presupposes:
Listen, without condemning. John XXIII said: “Look for what unites us and separate what separates us.”
Exposing by proposing and not imposing.
Believe in the other, even if the other does not believe what I do (this experience in Cuba has enriched me).
Be a credible one (some tell me: These are not believers, but my question is: and are we believable believers?).
Let us now consider the very person of the evangelizers. It has been frequently repeated in our days that this century thirsts for authenticity, especially in relation to young people it is affirmed that they suffer horrors in the face of the fictitious, in the face of falsehood and also are duly supporters of truth and transparency. A vigilant attitude should correspond to these signs of the times. Tacitly or loudly, but always with force, we are asked: Do you really believe in what you announce? Do you live what you believe? Do you really preach what you live?
Today more than ever the testimony of life has become an essential condition, with a view to a real effectiveness of preaching. Without going around the bush, we can say that to some extent we take responsibility for the Gospel that we proclaim (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 76).
(I share with you an experience that I have had in Havana: a famous Cuban doctor who had been in jail for not hiding his faith, from daily mass, one morning he approached San Juan de Letrán and told me: “Father Manuel, excuse me. Let him come so nervous, but I have been participating in the Eucharist and I was saddened to see how the priest celebrated. When he finished I waited for him to greet him and at the same time ask him a question: Do you believe? You ask that question? I couldn’t help but say: Well, if you believe, let it show! ”).
9.- At the ecclesial level, the ENEC was a unique meeting that marked a before and after in the history of the Church of Cuba. Time has passed, but what he told us then maintains the freshness of what is born, the wisdom of how to do things.
I quote the words of a pastor of shepherds, known to you, Mons. Adolfo Rodríguez: “The ENEC does not want to encourage us any more to fear that paralyzes, distrust that weighs down, cowardice that disguises or the complex that inhibits, does not fall into the error of reductionisms in matters of faith, putting it next to, or in front of or in competition with other ideologies. It does not aspire to a reconquest of powers, to a rescue of positions, favors or privileges for the Church. Yesterday, as today, the Church does not want anything other than the space necessary to fulfill its mission, to also give its ethical, moral, and non-political judgment, even on problems that are not strictly religious but are human, which does not constitute a privilege but a right and a service: the right that man has to receive the Word of God and to illuminate his whole life with the light of that Word ”.
The Church wants to announce, in frank friendship, her faith to all men, even to those who consider her an enemy, because she does not want to feel like the enemy of anyone. Lastly, the Church hopes that faith will cease to be a problem, a weakness or an ideological diversion here; and that the future does not resemble the past.
And to get to this, the Church has no other way or language than the language and the way of the heart.
The hope of the Church
The Spirit will lead us through his ways, which are not our ways, to that increasingly faithful invitation of Jesus Christ and to that ever closer communion with our Cuban people, with whom we share a mixture of faith, culture and races, and we share the joy of being born here.
Cubans, by our character, are capable of building anything in common; and together we are going to build this path of the Spirit, congratulating each other on so many things that go well in our country and asking ourselves what we can humbly do so that those that go wrong turn out well.
Open to the unpredictability of the Spirit, the Cuban Church wants to be the Church of hope: that she remembers the past, lives the present and hopes for the future.
We have hope and we want to give words of hope to those who ask for them, to those who need them, to those who have set their sights only on the ground as a limit to their aspirations and feel that something is missing.
We have neither the first nor the last word of everything, but we believe that there is a first and a last word of everything and we hope in the One who has it: the Lord. In it we look with serene confidence to the always uncertain future, because we know that tomorrow, before the sun rises, the Providence of God will have risen over Cuba, and over the whole world (ENEC Document, 31).
The sun has not risen yet … but we must not get impatient. Our thing is to sow even if we cannot reap the fruit …
“Walk today the path of today
and tomorrow tomorrow,
without pretending to see the whole road,
You can fail in this life by going slowly but you can also fail by haste ”(Ob. cit. p. 28).
José Martí affirmed: “It must be done at all times what is necessary at all times” (Notebook of Notes, t. 21, p. 107). “And what has to last a long time has to be done slowly” (Franca, La Opinion Nacional, Caracas 1882, t.14 p. 486).
10.- Finally, I would like to share a few words with you about the danger of allowing ourselves to be manipulated by violence, because anger, resentment, and discouragement can nest in our hearts as shepherds, seeing that nothing changes and it seems that we always return to the same point.
Perhaps the 11J is a window to a different future in our country, it is the cry silenced for so many years behind the “nasobuco” that covers our true soul. That soul that demands dignity, rights, justice and not on a whim, but because we were created free.
Let us free ourselves from the enmity that has infiltrated many aspects of our lives, let us defend and defend ourselves, let us protect our spirits from the temptation of force, from the contamination of the heart and the contempt of our fellow men.
Let us be shepherds, brothers who strengthen the brother, accomplices of reconciliation and hope. Of that hope that is not utopia but the certainty of a future that is making its way between us.
I conclude with the words of a witness of our time, Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga:
but it’s our time.
but it’s all the time
what do we have on hand
to make the future.
but it’s us
this late hour.
but it’s early morning
if we insist a little.
Fr. Manuel Uña Fernández, O.P.
Havana, Cuba on August 4, 2021.