HAVANA TIMES, April 7 — After five decades of having to go to work on Good Friday, Cubans were given a holiday to go to church. However, the Mass held in the Havana Cathedral had fewer than 200 people and the bearing of the cross procession wasn’t enough to fill a city block of the faithful.
Nor was the “Sermon on the Seven Words” Mass widely listened to, despite it being broadcast on Cuban state-run television. Out of the dozen households that we surveyed, in only one of them was anyone watching the religious ceremony officiated by Cardinal Jaime Ortega.
Over the internet, some believers of other religious faiths protested the “favoritism for a particular divinity by a government that considers itself secular and that rules over a people of whom the majority have a much more complex religion.”
Cuban nuclear physicist Roger Diaz Moreno said in his blog that “No matter how many popes that come here, it won’t change the fact that religious syncretism pervades Cuba or that the Orishas (African gods) are much more popular than Christ.”
Going to church or the beach?
Addressing a half-empty cathedral, the head of the Cuban Catholic Church called for reconciliation between his compatriots, saying, “Without forgiveness there can be no healthy interpersonal relationships or social life; nor can there be reconciliation between human groups or peoples.”
In his sermon, Cardinal Jaime Ortega emphasized the evangelical discourse of Benedict XVI, expressing the “necessity of faith” among human beings for them to abandon atheism, which “means loneliness,” though it was official policy in Cuba for decades.
Outside the cathedral, broadcasting trucks from Cuban TV were transmitting his words live across the whole country. However, through an informal survey we conducted of homes in Old Havana, we found that almost no one was watching the Mass.
Roberto Veiga, the editor of the Catholic magazine Espacio Laical, explained that “there were ceremonies held in other churches as well, but right now we can’t say how many people participated.” In fact, he wouldn’t even venture to estimate the number of believers who were in the Cathedral for Mass.
We found Antonia Lugo (who describes herself as someone who has been a “Catholic forever”) walking behind the image of Jesus through the streets of Old Havana. She commented that “there are fewer people here today than in past years [when it wasn’t a national holiday]; it seems that many of the faithful took advantage of the holiday and went to the beach.”
A procession of Catholics, dissidents and communists
The Stations of the Cross procession left the Havana Cathedral with a local band in front and Bishop Juan de Dios Hernandez leading the faithful, whose numbers failed to fill one of the narrow streets of the historic district.
After the initial rows of believers came the Ladies in White (the wives of prisoners released last year thanks to the efforts of the Catholic Church). During the Pope’s visit they had requested a meeting with him, though he turned down the invitation.
Their spokesperson, Berta Soler, said that making Good Friday an official holiday was “a crumb that the Cuban government is giving to the Catholic Church, which is being refused space on television, radio and in the educational media.”
Immediately after them came the “strike force,” consisting of a group of elderly people “willing to defend the revolution with their lives against many ill-intentioned people who have joined this procession to do it damage,” explained Mariana Gonzalez.