By Anita Snow. Associated Press. October 12, 2001. The Washington Times
HAVANA - Five days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Cuba's top Roman Catholic church leader, Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, celebrated a special Mass in the Havana cathedral. Despite long-standing acrimony between the U.S. and Cuban governments, Cuban citizens and government leaders condemned the attacks. President Fidel Castro even offered medical help to the island's historical foe. "With pain we rebel against a calculated, evil act that involves so many innocent men and women," Cardinal Ortega said during the Sept. 16 memorial service. "Injustice always angers us, but justice won't be re-established with hate and vengeance."
It was the latest sign of the Cuban Catholic Church's dramatic evolution under the 64-year-old archbishop of Havana. Cardinal Ortega, who in 1998 saw the first papal visit to the Caribbean island, has worked hard to regain ground the church lost after the 1959 revolution that brought Mr. Castro to power. Earlier this year, he consecrated the first parish church built in Cuba in more than four decades. "Enter through the doors of the Lord, giving thanks for His sacrifices," Cardinal Ortega intoned then, amid applause from the parishioners. He was resplendent in a golden miter and vestments, as he opened the doors of St. Joseph parish just blocks from Communist Party headquarters.
"The Lord has built us a house!" young people sang, banging steel drums as they marched into the stucco sanctuary while church bells rang. The ceremony in late June was another victory for Cardinal Ortega, who has negotiated modest but meaningful openings with a formerly atheist government. "This is truly a historic event," said the Rev. Fidel de Jesus Rodriguez, the parish's priest. The government had approved the construction and sent representatives to the consecration, he noted.
Today, Cardinal Ortega is among several cardinals in Latin America mentioned as possible successors to Pope John Paul II, now 81. But his beginnings were modest and his climb up the ecclesiastical ladder was arduous. Just as Cardinal Ortega began his priestly vocation, the new communist government was weakening an already feeble Cuban church. It closed parochial schools, expelled foreign priests, even sent Cardinal Ortega and other Cuban priests to work camps.
The son of a sugar worker and a housewife, Cardinal Ortega was born on Oct. 18, 1936, in the sugar-mill town of Jaguey Grande, in the central province of Matanzas. When he was 5, his family moved to the provincial capital of Matanzas, an important coastal city. There, Cardinal Ortega attended public schools and studied for the priesthood before completing his studies with the Fathers of Foreign Missions in Quebec. By the time he returned to Matanzas for his 1964 ordination, Cuba's Catholic Church — never strong to begin with — was seriously weakened. Previously identified with the wealthy, the church took a vehemently anti-communist line shortly before Mr. Castro declared Cuba to be socialist in 1961.
The revolutionary government soon accused prominent Catholics of trying to topple its new leader. Public religious events were banned after processions became violent political protests.
The government nationalized the more than 150 Catholic schools across the island. Hundreds of foreign priests, mainly from Spain, were expelled; the number of priests dropped from 670 to fewer than 200. Cardinal Ortega and many other Cuban priests were sent to military-run agricultural work camps during the few years they operated. Cardinal Ortega spent a year at one camp beginning in 1966.
Afterward, he returned to Matanzas province, where the priest shortage required him to travel among multiple churches to celebrate Mass, perform baptisms and officiate at weddings. He formed a youth group and organized a summer camp for young people. During this busy period, Cardinal Ortega, a practiced pianist, composed music for a Cuban Mass, and traveled to Havana weekly to lecture on theology.
He was consecrated as bishop for the diocese in western Pinar del Rio province in 1979 and was named archbishop of Havana in 1981. During those years, beginning in 1974, the Cuban government was officially atheist. Believers of all faiths were banned from the Communist Party, the military and some other professions. Nevertheless, Cardinal Ortega helped rebuild the church infrastructure in and around Havana, establishing new parishes — often in people's homes — and renovating more than 40 existing churches.
The archbishop also set up Caritas of Havana, the Catholic relief charity's first office in Cuba. That planted the seed for Caritas of Cuba, now among the country's most successful nongovernmental organizations. In November 1994, Pope John Paul II named Cardinal Ortega Cuba's first cardinal in more than three decades and the second in the island's history.
Just two years before, the government dropped its constitutional references to atheism, starting a gradual thaw in church-state relations that culminated with the 1998 papal visit. When honoring Cardinal Ortega during a Boston visit in 1997, Cardinal Bernard Law described his colleague as "a sign of hope to a world that so desperately needs those signs."
While Cardinal Ortega refrains from publicly confronting the Cuban government, on trips abroad he expresses disappointment that change has been modest. John Paul's visit to the island "stirred hope in the hearts of Cubans," Cardinal Ortega was quoted as saying during a 1999 visit to San Francisco. But, he added, the "more positive and open climate of 1998 now seems a thing of the past." Although Cardinal Ortega has made no headway in reopening Catholic schools, he has had limited success in gaining access to Cuba's mass media, receiving occasional approval to broadcast messages on government radio.
In one such message, he noted the government's decision after the papal visit to once again make Christmas an official holiday. That was, he said, "a joy for the church and for the Cuban people."
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