A faith connection on Cuba’s slow but emerging lane of technology

Havana (CNS) — It’s a scene all too familiar in the U.S., but not one you’d expect in Cuba: a group of schoolgirls cupping their cellphones with their hands, protecting them from the glare of the tropical sun. Most are looking at pictures or listening to music downloaded on the phone’s memory card. Few can access the Internet using their phones.

A group of schoolgirls cup their cellphones in their hands to protect from the sun's glare in Cuba. While few Cubans have access to the latest  gadgets, Catholics have long used technology in various forms to transmit the faith.  (CNS photo/ Rhina Guidos)

A group of schoolgirls cup their cellphones with their hands to protect from the sun’s glare in Cuba. While few Cubans have access to the latest gadgets, Catholics have long used technology in various forms to transmit the faith. (CNS photo/ Rhina Guidos)

Internet is not illegal in Cuba, but it’s regulated, it’s not easy to get and it’s too expensive for the average Cuban to afford (sometimes an hour can cost as much as a quarter or half of a monthly paycheck). Estimates of Internet connectivity vary: some say 5 percent of the island’s 11 million inhabitants have Internet access, others say 25 percent.

Yet cellphones, lately smartphones and even tablets, are not an uncommon sight. Some have been brought in by relatives abroad eager to communicate regularly with family on the island. But younger Cubans eager to communicate with the rest of the world are finding ways to put more than the devices’ telephone ability to use. Those eager enough to connect to the world outside of Cuba can find their way toward Internet at hotels that offer free Wi-Fi or other tourist-friendly establishments that sometimes have easy-to-hack passwords.

In Catholic circles, technology, even without the Internet, has long been used on the island as a way to transmit the faith. Though they may not always be able to access online content, some Catholics admit downloading and sharing the Bible, versions of the Liturgy of the Hours — a set of prayers also known as the Divine Office — and other religious content using memory cards that can be inserted into cellphones, desktops or TV sets.

Using memory cards, some Catholic Cubans have access to the Bible on cellphones,  or the Liturgy of the Hours, to help them maintain a life of prayer throughout the day. (CNS photo/Rhina Guidos)

Using memory cards, some Catholic Cubans have access to the Bible on cellphones, or the Liturgy of the Hours, to help them maintain a life of prayer throughout the day. (CNS photo/Rhina Guidos)

Some say that “for a price,” in other words, on the black market, they have purchased and downloaded movies such as the “Son of God” movie and the “Catholicism” video series by Father Robert Barron on a thumb drive. They plug the thumb drives into another device at home to enjoy the religious content that may not otherwise be available to them and their families, not because it’s prohibited, but because it can’t be readily found in a store.

Cuban Catholics also have made a debut on Facebook. The Archdiocese of Santiago de Cuba has a Facebook page. Recent status updates include Lenten activities and the rebuilding of churches damaged during Hurricane Sandy.

Before the cellphones, the memory cards and tablets arrived, many say that, back in the day, they watched movies about the lives of the saints and other popular Catholic media events using Beta and VHS cassettes — in case you remember what those looked like.

Guidos, an editor at Catholic News Service, went on a Lenten pilgrimage to Cuba in early March. This is the first in a series of blogs about the daily life of Catholics in Cuba.

Canonization may prove a boon to Washington shrine

Roman street vendors and devotees of Blessed John Paul II aren’t the only ones happy about what the canonization of the late pope will mean for them.

Officials at the Blessed John Paul II Shrine in Washington, D.C. also hope the upcoming canonization of the Polish pontiff will be a boon to their center, which has struggled in the past with visitors and finances.

Kevin Smith, a spokesman for the shrine, said changes already were underway for expansion (in the spring of 2014) of exhibition space devoted to the life of Karol Wojtyla and his journey toward becoming John Paul II. However, with news in early July that Pope Francis signed a decree clearing the way for John Paul’s canonization, shrine officials quickly began planning events and an expanded exhibit in case he is canonized before the year is out. The Vatican has not yet announced a date for the ceremony.

“We were shocked but very happily surprised” with the timing, Smith said. “We knew he was a going to be saint.”

Besides changing the name to the St. John Paul II Shrine, the Washington center named after the pope will feature, at the time of his canonization, a liturgical schedule, including a Mass and a feed to the goings on at the Vatican, for those who want to take part of the historical day.

“If you can’t go to Rome for the canonization, come to the shrine,” Smith said.

The shrine also plans the exposition of a relic – a piece of the blood-stained cassock John Paul was wearing during an assassination attempt – for veneration.

The day of John Paul’s canonization “will be the most important day this place sees,” Smith said.

The Knights of Columbus bought the property in 2011 for $22.7 million and plan to quadruple the exhibition space devoted to the Polish pontiff. The center originally opened in 2001 as the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center and cost $75 million to build. The property has been valued at $37.7 million.
jp2center

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