By Jose Antonio Varela Vidal
ROME, MARCH 27, 2012 (Zenit.org).- On Monday, Benedict XVI landed in Cuba, after a successful visit to Mexico.
To learn about the Church in Cuba, ZENIT spoke with Father Jorge Luis Pérez Soto, a priest of the Archdiocese of San Cristobal of Havana, who lives in Rome and is studying dogmatic theology.
ZENIT: Your vocation was born in an atheist system.
Father Pérez: Yes, certainly. My vocation arose in my living as a Christian in the Catholic Church of the 90s in Cuba. I thought about it seriously in 1995, when I was 15, and then I entered the seminary after finishing my bachelor’s degree and military service.
ZENIT: What is the difference between the Church in Cuba of the 90s and the present Church of 2012?
Father Pérez: The Church of the 90s was one of multitudes, when after the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, and the great economic crisis of Cuba following the end of the Soviet regime, many Catholics came to our churches looking for answers to their most profound questions. The Church in Cuba had already expressed herself in 1986, during the first Cuban national ecclesial meeting, whose theme was “A Church without Borders, Solidaristic in Love,” which was a profound revision of the way we were living our ecclesial being.
ZENIT: Did a guiding document result from it?
Father Pérez: Yes, it was a very important pastoral document, in which the option was to be an incarnated, missionary and praying Church. Thus it is that people come out of church and say: we are alive, we have a message to transmit! Today the period of the multitudes has passed and the Church is at a stage with fewer members, but with more defined options in order of the faith.
ZENIT: John Paul II’s visit in 1998 also had an impact on this process, no?
Father Pérez: Yes, because it was the first time that we could express ourselves publicly as a Church and tell the world that the Church is not dead and that we have a life to offer our people, and that the Church can give meaning to their lives.
ZENIT: What do Cuban people expect from Pope Benedict XVI’s message?
Father Pérez: The Cuban people are multiple in their options, lifestyles, criteria and political thought, whether they are in or outside the Island. Situating myself with the people who live and feel in Cuba, I can say that all expect a voice of hope that will enlighten them in addressing the social realities they are experiencing. Then, a message of love is expected – the Pope is coming as a “Pilgrim of Charity.”
ZENIT: And in regard to the crisis of the family, so accentuated in Cuba?
Father Pérez: It is the general crisis of the post-modern society, because it is difficult for a person to opt for lasting values that mark his life forever. Another factor is the irresponsibility in living personal and sexual morality, which implies a difficulty when it comes to making a decision that implies responsibility for the rest of one’s life. Hence, the Pope’s message is important, but also the work of education carried out by the Church, of which we would like to do more.
ZENIT: What is the importance of the places the Pope will visit?
Father Pérez: He is going to Santiago de Cuba, which is the primate archdiocese and, also, where the shrine of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre is, where the image is kept found 400 years ago, found by three slaves working in a copper mine, after invoking her when a storm broke out that put their lives at risk. Then the slaves of the region began to render her devotion, which spread rapidly throughout the country. It is curious that this was the place where slavery was abolished in Cuba.
ZENIT: And Havana?
Father Pérez: It is the capital, and was the second archdiocese of the Island, where the majority of Cuban bishops resided. A Mass will be celebrated for the homeland, for the faith. It will be held in Revolution Square, which has witnessed the history of Cuba over the last 50 years and where Blessed John Paul II celebrated Mass.
ZENIT: Is more religious liberty expected with the arrival of the Pope?
Father Pérez: Although freedom of worship exists, there must be a progression in religious liberty. When the Church appeals for religious liberty, it’s not for social preponderance, but because we are convinced that Gospel values have something good to contribute to the life of society. The Church can help to renew Cuban men and women, she appeals for religious liberty as a right.
ZENIT: How should this religious liberty be expressed?
Father Pérez: For example, the Church should be able to express herself in the media in a fuller way. What is key is that the values of the Gospel — and I am almost quoting John Paul II when he was in Cuba, aren’t a danger for social projects, but can serve as leaven in the dough, a ferment of good, of grace, of holiness for society.
ZENIT: A final invocation for your compatriots — in and outside of Cuba.
Father Pérez: The Pope’s visit is pastoral, namely, the pastor’s affection for the flock that has been entrusted to him and that he feeds as Successor of Saint Peter, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ in keeping with his mandate. I would ask ZENIT’s readers and Cubans in and outside the Island, that we open up to the message of love. Often the Church or individuals are judged in virtue of the past and because of our judgments we lose the profound riches they can give us in the present moment. The Pope supports us as a pastor and instructs us with his teaching; as for the rest, the life of the nation, this is something that we, Cubans, must manage.[Translation by ZENIT]