Long frozen out in Cuba, Catholic Church has greater role in social welfare as pope to visit
Long frozen out in Cuba, Catholic Church has greater role in social
welfare as pope to visit
By ANDREA R. RODRIGUEZ, Associated Press
HAVANA (AP) — As vespers drew to a close at the St. Egidio Catholic
community center, a dozen homeless men in threadbare pants and rumpled
T-shirts shuffled into a side room where volunteers handed out cups of
soda and soft yellow rolls spread with mayonnaise.
“This is like my home,” said Ernesto Gutierrez, a 66-year-old retired
policeman who sleeps in parks and other public places because he has no
relatives overseas helping to supplement his meager pension. Often the
sandwich he gets at St. Egidio is his only meal of the day: “I
appreciate it so much.”
When Pope Francis arrives in Havana on Sept. 19, he’ll find his church
ministering to more Cubans than at any time since the 1959 revolution
that brought Fidel Castro to power.
After decades of conflict with Cuba’s Communist-run government, the
Roman Catholic Church has quietly established itself as practically the
only independent institution with any widespread influence on the
island. Expanding into areas once utterly dominated by the state, the
church is providing tens of thousands of people with food, education,
business training and even libraries stocked with foreign best-sellers.
“There has been a meeting of the minds for the benefit of the people,”
said Rolando Garrido, a doctor and director of Saint Egidio, which is
run by laypeople in a shabby part of Old Havana. “The state has realized
that the church’s social programs are a force for good.”
Church and state waged open warfare in the early years after the
revolution. Castro sent priests, including the current archbishop of
Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, to prison or work camps. Some clerics
openly supported anti-revolutionary fighters.
That morphed into decades of official hostility to religion, which the
government all but made illegal. Castro began easing prohibitions on
faith in the 1990s, removing constitutionally enshrined atheism ahead of
a visit by Pope John Paul II and reinstating Christmas as a public
holiday soon after.
Enrique Lopez Oliva, a professor of history and religion at the
University of Havana, said the church’s expansion into social welfare
also has a longer-term goal of broadening its support among the Cuban
people, with the hope of ultimately winning more leeway to operate.
Ecclesiastical authorities have long wanted to run full-time private
schools and get religious programming on state-run airwaves, both of
which the government has stubbornly resisted.
Already, the church is operating in ways unimaginable in the years when
the state tried to control every aspect of life in Cuba, particularly
basic needs such as food, health and education. Now starved for cash,
Cuba’s socialist bureaucracy no longer acts as the sole guarantor of its
At Saint Egidio, neighborhood homeless can get a meal on a Friday night
and wash and change their clothes the next day. Many receive clothes and
emotional counseling. Volunteers take adolescents to retirement homes to
cheer residents. There are also recreational programs like
leatherworking and after-school sports, and academic tutoring.
“Slowly the state has been coming to grips with the reality that they
can’t guarantee everything to everyone from the cradle to the grave,”
said Gustavo Andujar, director of the Felix Varela Cultural Center, one
of the main community outreach arms of the Archdiocese of Havana. “More
and more spaces are opening up each day.”
Church officials say every parish in Cuba does at least modest community
outreach, mostly involving education and assistance for the needy. In
the central town of Remedios, volunteers give out free haircuts and
food. In Santiago, one of the cities Francis will visit, thousands of
people each year avail themselves of a church basement library offering
computer access and printing services.
Source: As pope set to visit, Church has boosted social work in Cuba –
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