Seeing the work of the church in Cuba

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.

Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Havana is seen illuminated by Italian artist Gaspare Di Caro March 25. (CNS photo/Jorge Silva, Reuters)

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.

The visit that gave Cubans a Good Friday holiday

Editor’s Note: Today, Good Friday, is 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 first of three blogs he wrote for Catholic News Service.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Miami airport was abuzz with excitement at 5:30 a.m. Travelers mixed with reporters carrying cameras and microphones. More than 300 pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Miami, their priests and Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski were headed for Santiago de Cuba on two chartered 737s to join in the visit of the “Peregrino de la Caridad” (the pilgrim of Our Lady of Charity, the patroness of Cuba), Pope Benedict XVI. A delegation from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was joining them.

Archbishop Wenski went from speaking to reporters in Spanish to Creole and then to English. He greeted members of the Knights of Malta, business leaders and people of Cuban descent who had not been back to their homeland since they were babies, as well as elderly Cubans who were thrilled to be returning to a land that was still home and which they love, despite having left decades earlier.

The pilot of our Miami Air flight explained that the company flies charters all over the world, including troop deployments. He was excited to be making this trip, he said, first because it was bringing us to see the Holy Father, and second, because it was his last flight now that he was turning 65 and had to retire. We told him that we hoped it would not be our last flight.

U.S. Pilgrims from Florida and elsewhere pray at the Shrine of Our Lady of El Cobra before Pope Benedict arrived in Cuba. (CNS photo/Tom Tracy)

We arrived at Santiago de Cuba and stepped into a land that has had a blessed and difficult history. The day glowed with sunshine as we headed out on eight buses to visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre. The lush, green countryside is a stark contrast from Arizona.

The sanctuary at El Cobre had been spruced up for the visit. We approached along a street lined with banners welcoming Pope Benedict. Inside the image of the Virgin had been brought down to the sanctuary of the church from above the altar, where it is usually venerated. Flashes of light surrounded the image as people took photos. I knelt at the railing to offer a prayer for the people of Cuba, that they might realize their dreams and build a country of which they could all be proud.

Along the side aisles of the church were museum-style cases containing baseballs, one of Cuba’s favorite sports, and sports jackets and memorabilia from talented Cubans who have succeeded in realizing a bright future. One case contained prayers and photographs of the sick and loved ones lost. Church is a place to bring your struggles, your successes, your anxieties and fears to place them in Mary’s hands as did the couple in Cana, trusting that she would bring them to her son.

Out in the street, vendors were selling images of La Virgen, proud of their work and hopeful that someone would buy something. We wandered into the neighborhood that surrounds the church. As is often the case, the poor live in hovels around the church, as if holding onto the faith as that which brings them hope. We stopped at a couple of houses and were greeted with marvelous smiles, especially from the little ones who enjoyed seeing strangers visit. The street was in serious disrepair but it did not prevent one boy from riding his bike up and around deep potholes and minor obstructions, trying to get home. The neighborhood seemed excited about the pope coming to their community. Many were too young to remember Blessed John Paul II’s visit in 1998.

The group went to lunch at a restaurant right along the shimmering Caribbean. Rice and black beans are a Cuban staple, and the meal was delicious. Toward the end of lunch, someone looked up and cried, “Il Papa!” and people ran to the edge of the porch to see the Alitalia plane flying overhead. You could almost see the Holy Father waving to us as people waved enthusiastically from the ground. Later, many of the group watched on a grainy television in the bar of the hotel as the pope descended the stairs of the plane and was greeted by President Raul Castro.

We boarded our tourist buses to make the journey back to the site of the outdoor Mass. From a long way out, people holding Cuban and Vatican flags lined the streets, waving as we passed, cheering and filled with expectations. All the streets along the route were closed to traffic but were jammed with pedestrians. Castro had called for a holiday on the day the pope visited Santiago and another on the day of his Mass in Havana.

As we left our bus, we were swept up in a huge crowd that flowed peacefully down the streets. It was like a river of people curving their way downhill, a wave of people of all ages who had walked many miles to get to the celebration site. Some of the people from Florida broke down in tears as they saw throngs of their sisters and brothers, flocking to see the Holy Father in a country whose constitution only abolished atheism as the state creed in 1992, and a country from which they had to flee to practice their faith and to find their liberty.

Pilgrims from Florida joined the crowd before the papal Mass in Antonio Maceo Revolution Square in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba,. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The bishops vested in an area very near to the altar site. We found our places to the side of the main altar right in the sun. One could look out from the high altar and see people filling the whole square as clouds mercifully began to block the sun. The crowd was singing and chanting, enjoying one another’s company as they waited for the pope to arrive. Castro and other government leaders were sitting in the first row, chatting with one another as they joined the waiting crowd.

During a lull in the activities, when things were very quiet, a man from the crowd, yelling at the top of his voice, “Down with communism! Down with the dictator!” Immediately security rushed toward him and dragged him off. Some of the pilgrims later said he was beaten mercilessly.

A van carrying the statue of La Virgen de la Caridad entered the square, traveling around the field as people struggled to catch a glimpse. Excitement built until the Holy Father’s popemobile was seen coming down the road. People yelled and ran from one end of the square to the other to catch a glimpse.

The Holy Father appeared to have aged significantly from the last time I saw him almost two years ago. He appeared tired but seemed to push himself to be present to the people, to smile, and to reach out to them. The crowd was obviously pleased as they reached back.

Holy Week and hatred of the Jews redux

(CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

Even after years of fruitful work on Christian-Jewish relationships, good biblical scholarship and the landmark Second Vatican Council document “Nostra Aetate”, the nagging old canard that the Jews killed Jesus won’t quite go away. And there is no other time of year when this rears its head than Holy Week, when the the passion and death of Jesus is proclaimed in liturgy after liturgy, and those problematic Scripture verses are spoken for all to hear. They have been the source of millennia of persecution and pain. How are we to think of them, and why can’t they just go away?

This week, New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, herself a Jew, pens as essay for the Australia Broadcasting Networks’ Religion and Ethics program, “Holy Week and the Hatred of the Jews.” Levine offers a reason why this hatred remains and looks at six approaches that the church and academy have tried to resolve the issue. None, she notes, are entirely satisfactory.

Her essay is well worth the time to read and puts a new spin on the Gospel you hear at Good Friday liturgy.

Levine is the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, Graduate Department of Religion, and Program in Jewish Studies. Her most recent book is “The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus.” CNS recently reviewed another work, “The Jewish Annotated New Testament, New Revised Standard Version Bible Translation,” that Levine co-edited along with scholar Marc Zvi Brettler. You can read the review at Catholic San Francisco.

Pope’s chocolate egg heads to prison

By Bridget Kelly

Catholic News Service

Pope Benedict XVI admires his 551-pound chocolate Easter egg before donating it to a youth detention center in Rome. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters).

VATICAN CITY — During the pope’s Wednesday general audience in St. Peter’s Square, a chocolate company in Northern Italy gave him a 551-pound chocolate egg. The massive, beautiful egg is hand-decorated and reaches more than seven feet high. The detailed egg not only includes various designs and small pink flowers, but also features the papal coat of arms.

The pope decided to donate the egg to the children living at a Rome detention center, Casal del Marmo Prison for Minors. The pope visited the prison back in 2007, meeting the detainees and giving them his blessing. The youths, including many immigrants and non-Catholics, said they were moved by the fact that a pope would take time to visit them. Before leaving, the pope also told the young people he wished he could stay longer, and promised to keep them in his prayers.

In 1996 the same chocolate company, Tosca, gave Pope John Paul II a 551-pound hand-decorated chocolate egg as well. This year’s egg was designed to initiate cheer, sharing, and to celebrate the Easter season, the company said.

During the Easter season in Italy, many people give chocolate eggs because the egg represents birth, renewal and is a sign of life. Many pastry shops produce grand, hand-decorated chocolate eggs but none are comparable to the company’s nearly three-ton eggs that are 16 1/2 feet tall!

In case you missed it, here is a quick CNS video I did on the chocolate egg tradition in Italy:

Last-minute Lenten reflections

If you’re looking for some quick ways to reflect on the meaning of Lent as you finish up Holy Week, here something you may want to check out. Salt + Light TV in Toronto had Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa do a series of quick Lenten reflections. They’re all two minutes or less in length, so they’re easy to digest. This one, for instance, is on how the prophets call us to reconciliation and repentance.

Others that you can sample are on the meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice for us, why we focus on baptism during Lent, and how the life of King David reflects humanity’s need for redemption.

Where is Good Friday a holiday?

In the U.S., Good Friday is not a federal holiday, but a few states and territories officially observe it as such. (CNS graphic/Emily Thompson)

(CNS graphic/Emily Thompson)

Prison inmates head home for Easter after getting fines paid

Easter celebrations will be a bit more joyful for several dozen men who are leaving prison to be with their families in several Caribbean nations.

The inmates, nonviolent offenders who were being held for nonpayment of fines as low as $10, are able to head home for the holiday under a programs established by Food for the Poor based in Coconut Creek, Fla.

Angel Aloma, executive director of the organization, told Catholic News Service that agency representatives arranged to pay the fines of men who were jailed for petty crimes, such as stealing a loaf of bread.

Some inmates have been held as long as two years because they could not afford the fines.

Food for the Poor undertakes the effort in the weeks before Easter and Christmas at prisons in the Dominican Republic, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras and Jamaica.

Aloma said in most cases inmates must endure overcrowding, food shortages, lack of bedding and primitive sanitation facilities.

An overnight fire at a prison in Comayagua, Honduras, in February claimed more than 350 lives. Officials blamed the high casualty toll on overcrowded conditions in the prison, where an estimated 800-900 inmates were housed in a facility built for 350-400 people.

“The situations are horrendous,” Aloma said.

For those who remain jailed, Food for the Poor delivers food, shoes and clothing.

“It’s hard for them to see somebody released and they remain there,” Aloma added.

The program would not be as successful without the cooperation of prison officials in each of the countries, he said, explaining that they are strapped by limited resources allocated by national governments to provide for inmates’ needs and to improve prison facilities.

“Ours is a spiritual visit,” Aloma said. “We wash their feet in a true sense of humility because, by the virtue of where we are born, there but for the grace of God go I.”

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