Cuban Leader Embraces World Church

Walter Lippmann walterlx at
Sun Mar 9 13:19:37 MST 2003

(Fidel Castro and the Cuban leadership takes
on the Catholic Church hierarchy when that
hierarchy takes on the Revolution. Lately,
Jaime Ortega, the local church boss in
Cuba has been busy making some troubling
little noises. He must really underestimate
the political skills of the Cuban leadership.

This is one of the reasons why the Cuban
Communist Party broadened its social and
political base by opening up membership
to individuals who believe in metaphysical
or supreme beings. This facilitates Cuba's
ability to drive a wedge between the Roman
Catholic church hierarchy and the rank and
file of the institution.

(This strategy has been vindicated and the
results are laid out in the final sentence here:
"But the church has made no real progress"
which is what is driving the hierarchy crazy.)


Cuban Leader Embraces World Church
Sunday March 9, 2003 6:20 PM

HAVANA (AP) - Warming up to the Roman Catholic Church
while maintaining a distance from local church officials,
Fidel Castro exchanged medals with the worldwide
leader of an order of nuns that opened a convent here.

During a Saturday night ceremony at the Palace of Revolution
where he keeps his offices, Castro bestowed the medal of the
Order of Felix Varela, First Grade, to Mother Telka
Famiglietti, general abbess of the Order of the Most Holy
Savior of St. Brigid. The order was founded by a Swedish
mystic who died 700 years ago last year.

Dressed in her dark habit, the abbess then bestowed on
Castro one of her religious order's honor, the Ecumenical
Cross with the Star of the Commander of St. Brigid.

``This will be a historic day for us,'' said Castro, who
wore a dark suit and tie for the occasion. ``This will
commit us to being better and to giving ourselves
more to those we believe are doing good.''

The exchange was unusual amid the chill between Cuba's
church and the Communist state with the release of a
pastoral letter less than two weeks ago urging the
government to ease up on its harsh treatment of citizens.

``The hour has come to pass from being a legalistic state
that demands sacrifices and settles accounts to a merciful
state willing to offer a compassionate hand before imposing
controls and punishing infractions,'' Cardinal Jaime
Ortega - Cuba's top Roman Catholic clergyman - said in that

Ortega and cardinals from the Vatican and Mexico officiated
Saturday morning at the Mass to celebrate the newly
renovated building that the government donated for the

Ortega read a letter sent by Pope John Paul II to the island
faithful, urging them to ``keep sailing a steady course.''

But he was noticeably absent in the afternoon when Castro
made his unprecedented appearance at the two-story convent
in Old Havana for the blessing of the building where eight
nuns will live. An official reason for Ortega's absence was
not given.

Castro's government also has been irritated by a reform
effort known as the Varela Project, which is supported by
many Catholic laymen on the island even though it is not
officially backed by the local church.

Authorities here say they have shelved the request for a
voters' initiative on several laws that would guarantee
civil rights such as freedom of expression.

The top Varela Project organizer, Oswaldo Paya - an active
Catholic who met briefly with Pope John Paul II during a
recent trip to Europe to receive the European Union's top
human rights prize - downplayed the significance of
Saturday's exchange of medals.

``This isn't an opening, it's an event,'' Paya said.

Castro's government expelled hundreds of priests, mainly
from Spain, and shut down more than 150 Catholic schools
island wide in the years after his 1959 revolution.

Cuba's church-state relations have improved considerably in
recent years. The government declared it was no longer
officially atheist in the early 1990s and let religious
believers join the Communist Party for the first time.

The highlight of the gradual warming was John Paul's January
1998 visit to the island, along with the declaration of
Christmas as an official holiday.

But the church has made no real progress since in efforts to
gain greater access to state-run media and to open Catholic

Key remarks by Dr. Fidel Castro Ruz, President of the
Republic of Cuba, at the dedication of the Convent of the
Order of the Most Holy Savior of Saint Bridget.

Havana, March 8, 2003.

Your Eminence Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, Prefect of the
Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, special
envoy from the Vatican to this event;

Your Eminence Cardinal Juan Sandoval Íñiguez, Archbishop of

Monsignor Luis Roble, Apostolic Nuncio in Cuba;

Dearest Mother Tekla Famiglietti, Abbess General of the
Order of the Most Holy Savior of Saint Bridget;

Distinguished religious and lay personalities gathered here;

Women from Cuba and from all over the world that celebrate
today the International Women's Day, we also dedicate to
them this especial and beautiful event:

The year was 1956. We were in Mexico. We had boldly declared
that by the end of that year, we would either be free or we
would be martyrs.

That was almost 47 years ago. And that was when the story of
Mother Tekla began.

One day in June of that year agents of a major Mexican
security agency arrested me with some of my comrades. A
young Mexican army officer that no one had heard of at the
time, Fernando Gutiérrez Barrios, headed it.

The precautionary measures that made us suspects and led to
our capture were a result of the real danger of our physical
elimination by another state authority, with which Batista
was trying to remove the leadership of our movement through
paid agents.

Given the way our arrest came about and our determination to
defend ourselves in the belief it was a case of abduction,
the fact that we came out alive was an incredible stroke of
luck. Chance intervened on our part. We were in the hands of
a force led by an honorable officer. At first they thought
we were part of a smuggling ring; it was in vogue at the
time. Drugs were not back then the major problem they are
today. There was no information about Cuba. However, that
officer soon realized that what he was dealing with was a
group of dedicated and resolute patriots.

He rigorously fulfilled his duty at all times. Although he
persistently sought out any possible leads on weapons, and
found quite a few, he did it for other legal reasons. At the
end, he and his men even felt some admiration for us.

General Lázaro Cárdenas, a true moral beacon for his people,
took an interest in our case, and that helped to shorten our
prison time and limited the worst consequences of the
incident, although the measures of control and surveillance
remained rigorous until our clandestine departure from
Mexico. Nevertheless, the unexpected meeting with that
security officer would mark the beginning of a friendship
that lasted until the end of his life. As the years passed,
he went on to occupy positions of great responsibility in
his country. If it were not for him, there might not have
been any reason for telling this story today.

In September of 2000, Gutiérrez Barrios visited Cuba, as he
had done on other previous occasions. But this time, a
distinguished group of Mexican Catholics came with him.
Their aim was to carry out a special effort to try to bring
an end to the cruel blockade imposed on Cuba. During that
visit, he introduced us to a Mexican religious personality
for whom we feel special respect, the prestigious Cardinal
Juan Sandoval Íñiguez, Archbishop of Guadalajara. He was
also accompanied by representatives of the Bishops'
Conference of Mexico: Luis Morales Reyes, chairman;
Monsignor Abelardo Alvarado, secretary; and Monsignor Luis
Barrera, associate secretary, along with Mexican businessman
José María Guardia.

In their noble and friendly desire to bring an end to an
injustice that dated back more than 40 years, they hoped to
count on the support of numerous religious institutions,
including some in the United States.

This was when we met Mother Tekla, currently the abbess of
an Order founded in 1370 by Saint Bridget who renounced her
social status and all her earthly wealth although she was
the daughter of a wealthy and noble Swedish family. She
would die in 1373.

Mother Tekla visited Cuba four times between May of 2001 and
November of 2002. Her energy and dedication, her generosity
and liveliness quickly won her the affection and friendship
of all of us who met her. Her religious Order now has 46
houses in 15 countries. As was only natural, she expressed
her strong wishes for the order to be present in Cuba as
well. The world-renowned Mother Theresa of Calcutta had done
the same a few years before. Hers and other similar Orders
have received permission, both before and after the
Revolution, to carry out their activities in Cuba. They
primarily devote themselves to providing services of
enormous human value in senior people's homes, in hospitals,
social assistance centers and other similar institutions.
Their work, as a rule, is hard and selfless, and has always
received recognition, gratitude and support in our country.

Mother Tekla had a particular wish to inaugurate the Convent
of the Order of the Most Holy Savior of Saint Bridget on the
fifth anniversary of the Pope's visit to Cuba. As every
noble and non-counterrevolutionary effort related to Cuba,
it met with a certain opposition abroad, but also with the
support of numerous religious institutions, particularly
outstanding personalities of the Mexican Catholic Church who
promoted it, and the encouragement of the Vatican, where
Mother Tekla is highly regarded for her work in the Order
that she has successfully headed for more than 20 years.

The religious institution contributed significant sums to
the project. Cuba, for its part, through the plans for the
reconstruction of Old Havana, now internationally
recognized, provided a suitable location and assistance in
the building of this institution.

We are here today, therefore, to dedicate not a school, a
polyclinic, a factory, a hotel or any other of the thousands
of social or economic works carried out by the Revolution,
but rather the new home of a noble, symbolic and prestigious
religious institution.

In this modest ceremony, taking place at a crucial moment
for all humanity, I would like to express our recognition
for the humanitarian efforts carried out by the mothers and
sisters of numerous Orders of various religious
denominations, who devote their lives to alleviating the
pain and suffering of many people in need, something we have
sincerely praised on more than one occasion.

Likewise, we would like to pay a respectful tribute to all
of the churches and religious leaders everywhere in the
world who are opposing war and struggling for peace today.

I would like for this place to be an example of ecumenical

It is neither necessary nor possible to change the religious
beliefs and motivations of billions of people; but
intransigence and hatred between men and peoples can and
must be eradicated. To rule out such an alternative would be
to deny the human condition of our species.

Special respect, certainly accepted by many followers of
other religions, is deserved by the determined and tireless
efforts of Pope John Paul II toward peace, despite his
physical ailments, in his fervent attempts to prevent a war
in the Middle East, which could have disastrous human,
political and economic consequences for the whole world.

I would very especially like to express our profound
gratitude to Mother Tekla and our friends in the Mexican
Catholic Church, who requested and achieved the presence of
this prestigious order in Cuba, and made it possible to
dedicate this beautiful symbol of brotherhood and peace

A world of peace and justice is possible. This is what we
are trying to prove here today.

Thank you, very much!

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