ROME, MARCH 26, 2012 (Zenit.org).- “Benedict XVI will find himself in a Cuba geared to living a new period, both at the social as well as the religious level. A period of openings that must be consolidated,” said Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, archbishop of San Cristobal of Havana, in an interview with the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano leading up to the trip, which began today.
On the question of how the situation has changed in Cuba since John Paul II’s visit in 1998, the cardinal answered: “Fourteen years have gone by since that visit which took place at an economically much more difficult moment for Cuba than the present one. Today there are new structures in the government; there was a change four years ago in the presidency with new ministers and officials. An important economic reform has been initiated in regard to the cultivation of the land, the construction of dwellings, the legalization of autonomous jobs and private cooperatives, credit, the acquisition and sale of houses and cars, the creation of small private businesses.”
The Church now has more pastoral workers: priests and nuns. The arrival of missionaries is permitted. The Church has her own publications, more access to the media, although it is not yet systematic. In Havana we have built a new national seminary, the number of seminarians has increased and the public celebrations of the Church are made easier.
Influence of the Church
In recent days the international media has spoken much of an increased influence of the Church on social issues. Is it true? “More than influence — answered Cardinal Ortega — I prefer to speak of social presence. Fifteen years ago, before John Paul II’s visit, it seemed that the Church was absent from society. Today it is no longer like this; little by little she has been transformed into a social reality which must be taken into account.
The Church has taken part actively as mediator between the government and relatives of the detained of the group of 75, 53 of whom are still in prison. Accepting our mediation in favor of the detained, the government decided to release them. However, it has also released from prison 130 detained men called politicians. Many of the names of these detained men were on the lists of opponents, or were named as such by the Cuban government, so that those of this nature have not remained detained in Cuban prisons. In this case also, the Church had a role of mediation.
Before Christmas, in view of Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba and of the Jubilee Year of the 400 years since the finding of the image of the Virgin of Charity, patroness of Cuba, and by express desire of the Catholic Church and of other Christian confessions, President Raúl Castro granted pardon to 3,000 detained men sentenced to longer punishments, because of good behavior and for reasons of health.”
Relations with the Government
How are relations today in the country? “Relations are more direct and fluid,” answered Cardinal Ortega. Participation in the process of release from prison of the detained has enabled me and the president of the Episcopal Conference to meet on several occasions with President Raúl Castro, with whom we have been able to address topics of national interest or related to the Church in Cuba; the preparation of the Pope’s visit has been carried out in a positive climate, with all the necessary facilities for its organization.”
What are the expectations for Benedict XVI’s visit? ”The Cuban people — answered Cardinal Ortega — already know what the Pope’s visit means, but many of them were children when John Paul II came; today they are young people. The people express their faith today more than they did 14 years ago. The Church has become more present and the religious topic is no longer a taboo. The national pilgrimage of the Virgin of Charity was a genuine demonstration of popular faith and religious feelings, which seemed asleep or extinguished, and which manifested themselves in a very evident way. This is the spiritual climate the Pope will find.
While the Virgin was on pilgrimage the people asked for our blessing which we priests and the deacons had to give personally to the point of exhaustion. When, in large public celebrations, I say that the Cuban people yearn for God’s blessings and that the Pope is coming to visit us to bring us a blessing from Heaven, everyone applauds. The people’s expectations are certainly expectations of faith, but they also include the good of the country, the well-being of families, reconciliation between Cubans, hopes of a better future. We, who for many years have been the pastors of these people, know how important it is for the Cuban people that the Pontiff is coming to bless Cuba.”[Translation by ZENIT]