Despite papal visits, ministering to Cuba's Catholics still difficult

McClatchy NewspapersApril 1, 2012 

GUAIMARO, Cuba — After two papal visits, the Roman Catholic Church enjoys growing support from long-suffering Cubans yet support from the Communist Party that rules this island nation can be described as reluctant at best.

Priests from Cuban interior, far from the large cities of Havana and Santiago, say it remains nearly impossible to operate with a semblance of normalcy. They cannot approximate the kind of church services or evangelical outreach that's commonplace in the rest of Latin America.

There's a strain here on what elsewhere in the Americas is taken for granted — whether it's being forced to celebrate Mass in someone's crumbling home, or having government agents sitting in on sermons to keep a leash on what's said from the pulpit.

"This place is at zero as far as I'm concerned," said Rev. Alberto Reyes, a 44-year-old parish priest in the central Cuban town of Guaimaro, 250 miles east of Havana.

While Pope Benedict XVI's three-day visit to Cuba last week highlighted what is considered the improvement in church-state relations that has taken place in the years since Pope John Paul II made his historic trip to Cuba in 1998, a visit to Cuba's rural parishes shows the limits of that rapprochement.

The Cuban government still won't let the church build new places of worship. Only the restoration of Roman Catholic churches that predate the 1959 revolution is permitted. There are newer hotels, but in most cities across the country, buildings generally either predate the revolution or were constructed before the collapse of the Soviet Union_ the Cuba's economic provider.

Churches in the interior are largely in the same crumbling state as the rest of Cuba's buildings, creatively cobbled together and often hanging together by a thread. In the church where Reyes ministers, the ceiling has been repaired but many of the cross-shaped windows cut delicately into brick years ago for ventilation no longer have their storm covers. They're now just open spaces where water pours through when it rains and birds and insects enter at will.

Reyes hopes Benedict's trip will allow for new churches to be built in Cuba and that he can spread the church's message on a wider scale. But he isn't holding his breath.

"The church can teach what it wants to teach, but within the church," he said, noting that absent new churches, the task is made much more difficult.

With Cuba's priest shortage, Reyes ministers to several towns in an area with a population of about 47,000. There are one or two old churches where he can hold services and where volunteers can do charity work such as breakfast for the aged.

But in most of the towns, Reyes celebrates Mass in someone's home.

Often, he says, it's the only place that also has a television and a DVD. Reyes sometimes shows up to find a large crowd of people in the middle of a movie.

"If I try to give Mass it means they'll have to stop the movie. They'll hate the priest," said Reyes. "If I had a small church, it would put an end to that."

Rev. Jose Santana can relate. He is a Colombian from outside Bogota who has led a small Catholic Church for the past two years on the outskirts of Pinar del Rio, a mid-sized Cuban city a couple of hours west of Havana. Upon arriving in Cuba, he learned that he'd tend to communities spread out in the countryside but with no church where the faithful can congregate.

"It's distinct because ... it's not a neutral place," he said of the homes in which Mass is offered. "The place is small, there is no silence (for reflection). People get distracted. The neighbor plays music, or they are talking. And there's the unpleasant smell of pigs."

Yes, pigs. The worshipper who offered up a home for Mass raises swine, and that isn't a clean or quiet task.

Then, there are the secret agents who attend services, Santana said, citing word from his followers.

"They view us as a threat," the diminutive priest said. Of particular concern, he said, is any message against abortion, a central tenet of the church.

Cuba officially was an atheist state until a constitutional change in 1992 that declared the nation secular. Abortion is a state-provided service, along with inexpensive birth control offered at state companies. It's an issue that government officials do not welcome discussion on, and Santana said he's twice been the subject of complaints to his superiors from government minders.

The long history of official state atheism led many Cubans to reject religion or practice it in hiding since it could cost them their livelihood. Today the state tolerates greater expression of religion but people are still nervously flirting with a formal relationship with the church.

"It's like we are starting over," said Santana, who noted last year was the first time in 53 years that the church was allowed to send the statue of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre — Cuba's patron saint — to parishes across all of Cuba

"People want to express their religiosity but have not been sufficiently able," he said.

Cuba's Roman Catholic leaders say being allowed to build new churches, rather than just restore ones that are in varying degrees of ruin, would be a start. So would be allowing the church to offer education in parallel with public schools, or having some exposure to religious tenets in schools.

But Benedict's recent visit, while raising the profile of the church through huge outdoor church services, did not conclude with any promises of further liberalization. Relations between church and state have improved, but for the operational side of church activities not so much still.

"In the concrete, there has not been an opening," he lamented.

Will that change after the death of the ailing Fidel Castro, 85, or his brother Raul, who'll turn 81 in June?

"That's the million-dollar question," said Alfredo, 47, a Jehovah's Witness in Havana who practiced his faith clandestinely for most of his life but now is more public about his beliefs.

Jehovah's Witnesses, known for going door-to-door to preach their faith, have been allowed large temporary assemblies in Cuba but like the Catholic Church are prohibited from building new churches. They must conduct services in makeshift fashion. Concerned about retribution, Alfredo asked that his surname not be used.

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