PONTIFICAL MASS — Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Archbishop of Havana, was the papal legate for a Pontifical mass at Notre-Dame-de-Quebec Sept. 14 to mark the 350th anniversary of the foundation of the first parish in North America outside of the Spanish colonies. (D. Gyapong photo)

Cardinal shares experience of building church in Cuba

By Deborah Gyapong

Canadian Catholic News

BEAUPRÉ, Que. (CCN) — Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Archbishop of Havana, shared an old slogan with Canada’s bishops Sept. 16 that helped renew the Catholic Church in Cuba before the revolution.

The slogan “training oneself in or through action” picked up on the themes Ortega developed in his talk to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops annual plenary on Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium and its relationship to the 2007 Aparecida document.

Ortega spoke of how the cathedral in Havana will organize a celebration of all young people from the well-populated neighbourhoods. Few come for communion, some are preparing for baptism, but all will go out and do social service for the poor, he said.

At night, when it’s cold they will go out and help the people sleeping in the streets, perhaps giving them hot chocolate.

Groups of young people also got involved in visiting a state residence for elderly people. Their efforts attracted the attention of a doctor who worked there. He became friends with these young people who worked to improve the facility by painting it and continuing their visits.

He became a friend of that community, became baptized, had his child baptized and started to come to church, the cardinal said. He eventually became the director of that residence and now every 15 days mass is celebrated at that facility.

“We have to start, knowing someone is going up a ladder,” Ortega said. In a neighbourhood, someone might start holding prayer meetings in their home. He might send a seminarian to visit each Saturday, and as it grows perhaps a deacon. He recalled one woman in his diocese who lent her house for 12 years every Saturday. People filled the garden, the garage, the patio, filling every available space. Even more packed in for Holy Week and Christmas, he said. “That family was simply unbelievable.”

The community grew to 140 people who go to mass every Sunday and now have a priest, he said. “That’s how it starts.”

“It starts with this house which is accessible to the neighbours,” he said. “They hear the singing.”

Ortega said that is also the mission for the continent. “It’s going concretely to places in the periphery.”

He described an older woman who was chair of the neighbourhood’s defence committee of the revolution. She did not go to church. Four doors from her house, we opened a small community that would pray every Friday.

“One day somebody knocks at door. It’s her!” he said. “May I come in?” she asked. “Yes, you are welcome!”

“She becomes quite involved in this small group,” he said. “She took a step and went over the barrier between revolutionaries and Catholics.”

“There are walls, all kinds of walls, bad memories from the past that have also to be brought down and that’s the way we do it,” he said.

Every year at the Easter Vigil they have catechumens who range from 17 - 25 years old, he said. Very often the people preparing them for baptism say, “We don’t have enough staff who are competent; the priest doesn’t have enough time.” They often don’t have a sister available to help. They have to appoint someone to help out who was himself baptized only two years previously, he said.

“I think we have to train ourselves through action,” he said. “People start doing something; they are providing a service in the church.

But so many people are leaving Cuba that they will evangelize people who live as good Catholics for three or four years, then all of a sudden decide to leave the county, he said.

“We are constantly starting over again,” he said. “We cannot, we may not get tired.”

The going out he described also lined up with his reflections on Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, which, he said, contains “the program for the future of the church.”

It is infused with the “spirit of Aparecida,” that inspired the fifth gathering of the Latin American bishops in 2007 at the site of the most visited shrine in Latin America.

Ortega stressed Pope Francis’ deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary who was described as a protagonist at the Aparecida meeting.

More than 14 million pilgrims visit the Aparecida shrine each year. At Cardinal Bergoglio’s invitation to see from God’s perspective, Ortega said the Latin American bishops were able to observe how “God looks at our Latin American people.”

Seeing the pilgrims flowing to the shrine to the Blessed Virgin “stripped us of our prejudices” against the “beautiful simple, religiosity of these simple men and women,” he said.

“We saw the happiness and blessedness of the poor,” Ortega said. “We saw popular religion from up close and touched it with our own hands. “The ‘round the clock’ presence of pilgrims made us feel Jesus’ compassion for the crowds,” he said.

The experience at Aparecida “created a humble and committed search” for spirituality that would “satisfy our peoples’ thirst for God in an evangelical spirit that stresses God’s mercy and invites all of us to a sincere conversion to Christ and to find abundant life,” he said.

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