Editor’s Note: Yesterday, Good Friday, was a holiday in Cuba, after the government granted a request from Pope Benedict XVI. Hundreds of Americans traveled to Cuba for the pope’s March 26-28 visit. Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., traveled with pilgrims from Florida. Following is the second of three blogs he wrote for Catholic News Service.
Tuesday, March 27, 2012
HAVANA — Breakfast was sparse but enough to get started. We met Maritza Sanchez, the director of Caritas Cuba, to visit with her staff and see some of their projects in Havana.
We had an opportunity to visit two projects at St. Barbara Church, located in a very poor part of the city. The parish has one Mass on Sundays and collects about $8. Today only a small percentage of Cuban Catholics attend Mass, and many blend their faith with native religions that came from African slave origins.
St. Barbara’s had a large group of elderly participants, many of whom live alone. They came carrying plastic containers to take food home. The feeding center is also an opportunity to socialize. I found it delightful to talk with the participants. I explained that my mom is going to be 100 in June, and they applauded. One elderly gentleman came up to say he was praying for my mom and asked if I would extend to her his greetings and best wishes.
Caritas also provides opportunities for women to have their hair done, which is so important for a sense of well-being. It is a moment when they feel cared for.
We also stopped by a feeding and nursery program for little ones. The children were gobbling their food and asking for more. Their smiles were precious and they seemed to enjoy interacting with us. Upstairs some of the littlest ones were taking naps, but of course they were eager to meet visitors and show off their toys. These youngsters were from marginalized families not able to receive other assistance.
We enjoyed a marvelous Cuban lunch with the staff of Caritas Cuba. Their ability and skills are obvious and their passion for the work impressive.
After lunch Miguel Angel, who works with the HIV program, took us on a tour of the city. Havana is an amazing city. Marvelous architecture graces its neighborhoods. Gracious buildings with pillars and columns adorned with impressive designs can be seen all over Old Havana. Some areas are in the process of being renovated with UNESCO funds. One can see everywhere glimpses of a grand city that has fallen into disarray. Several of the large plazas have been restored and are impressive, but right next door are streets and buildings that are disastrous.
Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Havana is marvelous, a beautiful place of worship. But there is a serious lack of priests in Cuba. A new seminary has been built on the outskirts of Havana, but only about half of the priests in Cuba are native. Others come from around the world, not unlike our situation in the Diocese of Tucson. Some of the churches in Old Havana are no longer churches but turned over for other purposes.
Most billboards around the city are political in nature, calling for more socialism. Only recently has the government allowed people to buy and sell cars and property. Lack of that right gave people no incentive to take care of their property. Around the streets you see old Soviet cars and vintage American cars, often used as taxis. The old city, despite the challenges, has a marvelous charm. One can see why many tourists visit Cuba, even though for U.S. citizens, tourist travel is illegal and visits for other reasons are difficult.
We visited the fort and harbor area, which offers a great view of the very impressive Havana skyline. The harbor is large and beautiful. It still has a hand-operated lighthouse, where a man attends to the light personally.
We enjoyed supper at a local restaurant. The rice and black beans are very nutritious. Sleep came easy after a long but productive day.