Cubans Recognize a Hero of Charity (Part 2)

Friar Is 1st to Be Beatified on Caribbean Island

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By Dominik Hartig

HAVANA, Cuba, NOV. 28, 2008 ( The people of Cuba will witness Saturday the first beatification ceremony performed on the island, as Friar José Olallo Valdés is raised to the altar.

Called a “hero of charity,” the religious of the Hospitaller Order of the Brothers of St. John of God is the second Cuban to be beatified.

ZENIT interviewed Father Félix Lizaso, of that same order, the postulator for the beatification cause, to learn about the spiritual legacy of Brother Valdés.

Part 1 of this interview appeared Thursday.

Q: What is Friar Valdés’ secret in becoming “blessed”?

Father Lizaso: There is no actual secret about the fact that a Servant of God would be named “blessed” or a saint. We might say that the secret is his recognized sainthood; in other words, that the Church approved his saintly life with the proof of a miracle.

In the case of the new blessed, Olallo Valdés, the Church has already recognized his worthy and exemplary life, wholly devoted to welcoming and assisting the poor, the sick and the abandoned.

Blessed Olallo was such a perfect follower of St. John of God, his founder, that, like him, Olallo was known as a “hero of charity,” “apostle of charity” and “father of the poor,” among other names.

Q: For a beatification, a miracle needs to have occurred. What was it in this case?

Father Lizaso: Upon Brother Olallo’s death, the whole town poured into the streets and began showing their veneration with extraordinary manifestations of sorrow and prayer. They participated in his funeral and burial, and they continued visiting his tomb afterward.

From a spirit of commemoration and grateful admiration, his devotees began a moving veneration: They visited him, prayed to him, took him flowers, requested his assistance and intercession, and experienced his protection and patronage, while, in turn, they expressed the graces and favors received.

The memory and admiration became veneration and intercession, a clear sign of his renown for sainthood, and kept up for one hundred years, subsequently claimed and declared by a number of witnesses at the court of his process of sainthood.

When the process and examination of his sainthood began, this veneration increased even more. During the postulation, letters were frequently received reporting new graces and favors received through the intercession of Father Olallo.

Among the various cases reported, one was chosen for its peculiarity: that of the healing of a three-year-old girl, Danielita Cabrera Ramos, from the town of Camaguey itself. She suffered from a disease catalogued and diagnosed as “non-Hodgkin’s, probably Burkitt’s lymphoma, in stage three to four, with vast abdominal diffusion, complicated by acute kidney insufficiency and early relapse.”

Her immediate and perfect cure occurred on the evening of Saturday, Sep. 18, 1999. This can be attributed to continuous community prayer on the part of an entire parish, in addition to other groups and neighbors of the family. These people, brought together and encouraged by the example of faith and confidence in the Servant of God, Olallo, shown by Danielita’s parents, admitted that the more serious the disease became, the more they turned to prayer.

Q: The new blessed lived at a time which was in no way easy for the religious. Can you describe some of the challenges of those days and how Friar José Olallo and his order reacted?

Father Lizaso: Indeed, the days in which Blessed Olallo lived, in the 19th century, were really not easy. The island of Cuba, like most countries in Latin America, was building its identity, seeking independence, and in the process of social and political development. These were days of poverty, lack of hygiene, serious epidemics, times of slavery, when the strongest prevailed, etc.

Brother Olallo worked for 54 years in a hospital for the poor and elderly, with a shortage of means, hunger, war, epidemics, slavery, political and social rivalry, in a long-lasting and sustained commitment toward this environment and its needs.

One author writes: “During the turbulent period of strife that came about as human passions combated unleashed, he was perhaps the only person who, removed from the turmoil, did not harbor grudges and who, on finding himself on his own, did not lose stability nor falter in his work, and who rejected esteem, however well-deserved, and forgave discredit, always unfair.”

In the midst of this disastrous social situation, he was also faced with the difficult period the Church and religious were undergoing, with land being disentailed and secularized, and its rather devastating consequences for priests, convents and consecrated people.

Forced to put aside his external identity as a religious, Brother Olallo continued at the hospital as a lay nurse, greatly admired and recognized by the people for his lifestyle.

Of the last 25 years of his life, he spent the first 10 nursing his only remaining religious companion, Brother Juan Manuel Torres, through a serious illness. After the latter’s death, he spent the last 13 years of his life completely alone at the hospital, as the only surviving Hospitaller. God and a few benefactors were his only company.

Q: The charism of the Hospitaller Order is hospitality. What did this involve, in Friar José Olallo’s lifetime, and what does it entail today? What does “hospitality” mean?

Father Lizaso: According to the most common use of the term “hospitality,” it focuses on welcoming pilgrims. However, with St. John of God, the term acquires a more specific, deeper and more direct meaning.

It becomes a general charism of Christian and evangelical welcome and attention to the sick, and of assistance to the poor and needy.

In the concrete figure of Olallo Valdés, the hospitaller charism took the form of loving closeness, welcome, assistance, and healing of anyone sick and needy. From the start, Olallo — who arrived in Camaguey at the age of 15 — devoted himself entirely to the sick, and soon became an expert in assisting cholera morbus patients. He always geared himself up for all situations, whether simple or difficult.

Under normal circumstances, he showed equal concern and dedication for the elderly, very often abandoned, for the poor and infirm, and for street children, even those without schooling, making no kind of distinction between people.

He viewed every sick person as someone in need. In addition to being a nurse, on account of the hospitaller charism, he learned and practiced the roles of surgeon, doctor, pharmacist, and even teacher and educator, without taking the place of any professional, but standing in when these were lacking.

Today, aside from health and social assistance toward the sick and needy, the hospitality of the Order of St. John of God aims more at meeting, replacing, and supplementing insufficiently covered social and welfare needs; this, always bearing in mind places and circumstances, in addition to Third World missions and countries.

Q: What trait do you most appreciate in the new blessed? Is there something you learned from him? What do you consider truly impressive about him?

Father Lizaso: When I became acquainted with him, my first reactions were of admiration and regret.

Admiration at such an outstanding figure, honorable, exceptional, and upright as a human being, as a hospitaller, and as a saint. Regret at his having spent so many years without being known or recognized.

Other than Olallo’s extraordinary behavior, what caught my attention most, from the beginning, was his magnanimous nature and his perseverance. Particularly, I admired his positive reaction toward the rather disdainful welcome from his first superior in Camaguey who, considering him an immature youngster, soon changed his caution to “fondness and trust,” admitting that Olallo had grown to be like “his hands and

As I learned of the testimonies about Olallo, I understood God’s designs upon him: The Gospel’s criterion according to which the humble are exalted, since he had remained in the historical shadow, hidden within the heart of the Camagueyan people.

His testimony arose vigorously at this precise moment, so that his figure surged like a new star in the firmament, the precious pearl of the Gospel, which appeared in order to enrich and illuminate Camaguey, the whole of Cuba, the Order of St. John of God, and finally, the Church, like an evangelical model of Jesus, the compassionate and merciful, and the Good Samaritan.

And in a more particular way, Olallo has become a special brother to me, from a stranger to a close companion, one who has encouraged me and even denounced me; he also appeared to me as someone in need, not on behalf of himself nor for himself, but as a new brother who the Lord was giving us, for our own good, to enlighten us all with his testimony.

He, together with the order, the Church, and God, were requesting my contribution as a postulator-brother of St. John of God, to allow his extraordinary charismatic testimony of heroic hospitality to become known and recognized, and, from the Church, to light up the way for Cuba and the order in the essence of the Gospel, love, in the form of service to the suffering.

I feel the beatification of Brother Olallo Valdés is the moment when the precious pearl is presented, disclosed, to all, by the Church.

[Translated by Clara Iriberry]

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