Cardinal Stella’s Trip to Cuba

Cardinal Stella in Havana.  Adalberto Roque / AFP.

By Leonardo M. Fernandez Otaño (El Toque)

HAVANA TIMES – Cardinal Beniamino Stella’s visit to Cuba, as part of the 25th anniversary celebrations of the pilgrimage Pope John Paul II made, is one of the most important political events at the beginning of 2023. The Italian prelate arrived on the island as a special envoy to Pope Francis with the clear objective of leading activities that every diocese has prepared to remember the Polish Pope’s passage on Cuban soil between January 21 and 25, 1998.

While Cardinal Stella has retired from his functions within the Church, he offers a long list of services within the Catholic Church.

Between 1987 and 2007, he acted as the apostolic nuncio in three countries that stood out for their complex political landscape and the presence of social conflict: The Democratic Republic of Congo, Cuba and Colombia. In 1992, he was appointed as the head of the Vatican’s Diplomatic Corps in Havana, where he was greatly involved in supporting the Church’s budding educational and social projects on the island. In 2013, Pope Francis appointed him Prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Clergy (responsible for disciplining the secular clergy and seminaries).

Stella is a man who knows the Cuban Church inside out and his diplomatic skills are still fresh in the Cuban authorities’ memories. The current cardinal also established important connections with the cultural world and Cuban civil society groups inspired by Christian thought.

The Church the prelate sees today is a weak institution that has been hit hard by the effects of the political, social and economic crisis that has been affecting the country. Especially after Economic Reforms were made, many church dependencies were forced to cut budgets and pay a high price to save their social services. 

One of the objectives of the Cardinal’s trip is humanitarian in nature, and centers around the release of 11J political prisoners. Here he is with President MIguel Diaz-Canel. Photo: Reuters.

The institutional situation is made even more difficult by a mass exodus that involves all of society. This phenomenon has left the Church without a large number of employees and pastors who provided a key service in its internal operations. Add to this the wave of repression against the Catholic community, spearheaded by the political police, which is characterized by arbitrary arrests, political harassment or police interrogations of parishioners and pastors across the archipelago. 

Furthermore, Father David Pantaleon Rosario, president of the Conference of Religious Members in Cuba and regional superior of the Society of Jesus, was banished from Cuba in September 2022. All of the above have led the international community to mark the Cuban Government as a State that systematically violates religious freedom.

Likely objectives of this visit

The abovementioned allows us to understand the pastoral need for this trip. Events and incidents that have gone hand-in-hand with Cardinal Stella’s tour have led him to outline his priorities. In religious terms, he wants to revive pastoral life in a church where the number of foreign pastors increases and the presence of Cuban clergy people is reduced (due to old age and the lack of native vocations). Meanwhile, he is trying to revive parishioners’ faith – who are becoming more and more frustrated by the hardship in their lives -, and for them to go to churches in search of support, spiritual or material.

The other objective is educational and cultural in nature, as it seeks to reinforce and protect the Church’s network of educational centers, publications and cultural centers on the archipelago, that have fallen victim to interrogations and censorship by the Office of Religious Affairs – belonging to the Central Committee of the Communist Party -, after the last wave of citizen-led protests.

Another significant objective is humanitarian in nature, and centers around the release of political prisoners involved in the social uprising in July 2021. Leaving Havana University, the prelate told press present: “it’s important that young people who expressed their thoughts in the way we’ve seen, are able to go back home.”

The Catholic Church has been one of the civil society institutions most involved in following prisoners of conscience and their families. Dozens of families and pastors have requested help from Cuban priests and the Holy See. What’s more, the Conference of Religious Members in Cuba has made public complaints about prevailing legal irregularities in criminal proceedings.

The other reason for the Cardinal’s trip centers around the mediation work the Church has done within the region. In his speech at the University, Stella said: “The history of the Cuban people has had the good fortune of independence and freedom coming at the same time from the minds of the founders of this beloved country. Freedom cannot be subordinated to any measure of interests or temporary situations or waiting for better times to promote it. This truth is supported by the teachings of Father Varela and Marti. It is at this time of economic change, that learning about freedom will favor the material, ethical and spiritual growth of the Cuban people. “Freedom is afraid of nothing when virtue is a given,” the venerable father Varela once said.”

The speech backs the Cuban bishops’ constant calls to democratize politics in the country with civil participation. The Catholic Church has also been one of the institutions that has demanded the Cuban people’s unrestricted participation in national political life, ever since the 1990s. Stella’s speech reflects the Church’s position to Cuba’s highly difficult situation.

The Cardinal’s visit has been interfered by a wave of repression against civil society. There have been complaints on social media about mothers of political prisoners being banned from attending religious ceremonies led by the prelate. The case of Camaguey native Ailex Marcano stands out, who was arrested when she tried to go to the cathedral in Camaguey.

A few hours ago, the government ban on critical Catholic priests and intellectuals from attending the ceremony at the University was made public. This included Father Jorge Luis Perez Soto and Friar Lester Zayas, O.P.A. this time. The prelate met with Dagoberto Valdes, who founded and directs the Center of Co-existence Studies -one of Cuba’s main civil society groups based on Christian teachings -, on more than one occasion.

Beniamino Stella’s visit portrays a reflection of Cuba’s political situation: an authoritarian Government that refuses to listen to civil society and independent institutions’ demands, and would rather establish a dialogue and mediate with foreign States (such as the U.S., the E.U., or the Holy See) instead.

If only Cardinal Stella’s trip allows for prisoners of conscience to be released, and that we don’t see another political dialogue where Cuban civil society and citizens from across the political spectrum, fail to have a seat at the table.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times