When last April 26 a note from the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba announced the decision of the Holy See to accept the resignation of the Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino – presented since 2011 – and to appoint in his place Monsignor Juan de la CaridadGarcía, who since 2002 to date was the head of the Camagüey diocese, in the first messages and telephone calls there was a tone of perplexity that almost immediately was tainted by a frank enthusiasm.
The majority of those who had devoted almost five years to intricate predictions about the surest candidates for the archbishopric of San Cristóbal had been mistaken, as well as the “experts on Vatican affairs” who kept on tenterhooks their readers with their predicaments while the conclave elected the new pope behind closed doors.
Monsignor García’s virtues have been stronger than the reasons for those who gave the forecasts. His priestly work starting 1972 as well as the almost 15 years as Archbishop of Camagüey have endorsed his modesty and personal austerity, his tireless missionary work and his spirituality based on the continuous and active exercise of charity toward others, not just on a level of institutional leadership but also, above all, directly, personally, face to face.
In recent days, diverse media have repeated the phrase “man of few words” to characterise him. The affirmation is just if it refers to his work methods, usually based on personal demonstration, as well as his rejection of rhetoric speeches and in the no uncertain terms he uses to cut short any type of rumour or flattery. He who can call his humblest parishioners by their name does not try to hide what he thinks or take pleasure in Versailles-style diplomacies.
At some time I lived the experience of attending in Camagüey a Corpus Christi procession that was caught by a strong rainfall, despite which the crowd remained united and firm when it came to its conclusion to listen to the homily of the Archbishop – as drenched as us – in which he developed once again his usual subject: God is the father, even more, following Saint Paul, he can be called Abbá, that is, Daddy. Only someone who has such an intimate relationship with the transcendental can make of the Christian virtues the armature of his vital journey and to predicate them with an eloquence that cannot be learned in books, but which reaches the heart of the most modest.
Few analysts have noticed the detail that this man from Camagüey, born on June 11, 1948, forms part of that generation of priests who had to be formed, compared to the previous ones, completely in the country, in the two seminaries that remained open: San BasilioMagnoin Santiago de Cuba and San Carlos y San Ambrosio in Havana. While this limited the students’ intellectual possibilities,far away from Rome, Louvain, Salamanca, it did produce an important group of priests whose education was completed with direct pastoral work, in the difficult conditions of the Cuba of the 1960s and 1970s. This explains the reason why a great deal of the Cuban priests ordained on the island around the first five years of the 1970s were men who were very conscientious of their mission, strongly committed to the problems of their communities and who substituted the academic honours with a practical pastoral wisdom that today continues giving good fruits.
Father Juan did not spend a great deal of his life as a priest working at the head of a diocese, in the shade of the beautiful colonial temples in Camagüey, but rather on the margins, in the faraway towns or openly rural areas. When he received the holy orders in the Morón Parish Church on January 25, 1972, when he still hadn’t turned 24, he had to start his ministry in the western zone of the diocese: he was the parish priest of Ciego de Avila, Morón, Jatibonico and as was usual in those times with a shortage of priests, carry out his work in the principal parishes while also hosting celebrations in small towns, sugar mill towns and hamlets.
Around those days State-Church relations were very tense. Atheism, defined as a constitutional principle, which could be a problem in the country’s capital, became especially serious in the lowest bodies where leaders with scarce preparation wanted to show their zeal through strong arbitrary measures: the backyard or the house of the parish priest annexed to a temple could be confiscated, the bell could be seized or the police try to prevent that catechists pick up the children in their homes, or loudspeakers with music could be placed when there were religious ceremonies. The young priest demonstrated serenity in the face of the setbacks and persevered in his mission.
Around a year ago one of the former parishioners, teacher María Victoria Olavarrieta, published in Miami an article in which she recalled those times with their picturesque details:
One of those days diluted in “the daily nothing” (at the time we did not have libraries or movie theatres in Gaspar), Father Juanito arrived in the chapel. “That priest believes in God,” my grandfather said in his purest Castilian accent and with that unique sense of humour of the Spaniards.
The bats had taken over the false ceiling of the chapel and when you opened the door, the stench left you breathless. The first thing was to sweep all the excrement and start throwing water, which we had to bring in buckets from the neighbouring houses.
Father Juan proposed repairing the benches, in their majority full of termites. He made a mixture with ink and something else and he painted the altar that was very discoloured. We didn’t have nails, and it was a titanic task to get a bit of paint for the walls, which had never been painted again since the church was built.
It was Holy Week and he proposed going out in the streets, knocking on neighbours’ doors to invite them to celebrate with us. “That priest is crazy,” “This one hasn’t found out that he’s in Gaspar.” My aunt took it upon herself to put him up to date about how things were in “Macondo.”…
I have been told that when Father Juan comes to Miami, you see him carrying with him chicken broth cubes for the stew the Church hands out to the needy. When he was a priest in the town of Florida, in Camagüey province, many elderly people were able to have at least a hot meal a day. During one of his trips, he returned to Cuba with more than 200 panties so that the ladies with cancer could go properly covered for their treatments in the cancer hospital.
Years later, in 1992, I personally met Father Juan. The then Camagüey Bishop Adolfo Rodríguez had asked me to accompany Monsignor ElíasYanes, Archbishop of Zaragoza, to the Sunday celebration in the town of Florida, since during that schedule he was unable to attend to the illustrious guest. What caught my attention was not just the large crowds in that community, but also the enthusiasm that emerged from its members, during the mass as well as in their personal exchanges. Not only were the services organised, from the mass to the visit to the sick, but also the fact that all those with whom I spoke referred to “Juanito” as a veritable leader. I remember that at that moment I felt that we the city Catholics were missing something. That is why I was not among those who were surprised when on March 15, 1997 he was ordained as Assistant Bishop of Camagüey.
Two fundamental figures of the history of the Cuban Church had a considerable influence on him. One of them was Enrique Pérez Serantes, Bishop of Camagüey between 1922 and 1948, but who Juan must have met in his days as a seminarian in San Basilio, while he was at the head of the Santiago de Cuba diocese. The Galician prelate, a man of clear popular roots, made his greatest endeavours in the missionary work he personally headed, until he became a living legend in the rural areas of Camagüey and eastern Cuba. The other was Adolfo Rodríguez Herrera, his predecessor in the Camagüey diocese, who ordained him as a priest and who was Assistant Bishop of Camagüey from March 1997 to June 10, 2002 when Juan replaced him. This bishop, today in the process of beatification, governed his diocese for almost four decades, a very difficult period due to the conflicts with the State, the shortage of clergy and well-prepared laypeople and the growing deterioration of the parishes in the extensive and not very densely populated territory that corresponded to him. An example of prudence, diplomacy, patience and optimism, his teachings impregnated Juan – though he had a different temperament – in the suitably carrying out his ministry though at times he seemed “a voice crying in the desert” and in the ability to dialogue with society to smooth out differencesand relativize conflicts instead of maintaining attitudes of confrontation with their serious consequences.
During his 14 years as assistant bishop, García has known how to take care of very varied matters: the training of missionaries and the extension of his work to the most isolated zones of the geography of that region; the animation and support of communities without a temple, the same in rural areas as in peripheral zones of the cities; the recovery of temples and chapels with a high level of deterioration; the strengthening of assistance plans and programmes and of human promotion.
His initiatives have been notable, like the place to shelter in the province’s capital city the persons accompanying the hospitalised sick, where they can bathe, rest and eat some hot food, as well as the distribution of large pots of broth in health institutions, made in his own residence, where, by the way, he established the custom of having lunch every day with his workers and blessing the table at a set time, like at home.
This has not prevented him from carrying out other tasks, like following up the process to take to the altars Brother Olallo Valdés, who he beatified in 2008 and driving ahead his predecessor’s cause, as well as presiding over the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba (COCC) between 2006 and 2008 and being a member of the Justice and Peace Pontifical Council. At present he is a member of the Standing Committee of the COCC and president of the National Commissions of Missions and Family, which is why in 2014he participated in Rome in the Regular Synod of the Family. Of him it could be said what José Lezama Lima wrote about Father Angel Gaztelu: “no one among us, as this illustrious sworn secular, to carry out during the curve of the day so many essential things.”
The appointment of a new prelate for a diocese, above all if this takes place after his predecessor’slong episcopate, is always reason for the unease of some persons. Such a thing has no founded reasons in this case. The new Havana archbishop has at the same time the resource and the energy to soon get the nearness and support of the clergy, achieve the continuity of the current pastoral projects and even serve as inspiration for some new ones. His solid frankness perhaps will bother some finicky persons, but it will win him the esteem of a great many laypersons and there is no fear that when submerged in the missionary work he will neglect other things, likematters that seem more “sophisticated”such as work in the cultural field,because he has known how to back and orient already with visible results matters related to the ecclesial social doctrine.
As to the dialogue that his predecessor Cardinal Jaime Ortega initiated with the State, there is no doubt that it will not be interrupted, but rather that, logically, it will be impregnated with his personal, respectful but frank style. The new Archbishop will openly say many truths where it is due, in that farmer’s fashion that is a bit brusque and healthy and that favours a man who has known how to recognise God as his father. (2016)
* The author is a consultant for the Pontifical Council of Culture in the Vatican and the new editor-in-chief of the magazine Palabra Nueva, of the Archbishopric of Havana.
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