HAVANA TIMES, Aug. 29 (IPS) – “Of immense value” was how the Cuban Catholic Church described the recent visit to the island by a delegation of bishops from the United States. Their stay concluded on August 21 in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba.
The visitors met with Cuban National Assembly president Ricardo Alarcon in a meeting in which “there was cordiality, attentive listening and frank dialogue,” said Juan de Dios Hernández, the secretary-general of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of the island.
“It was very serious, but at the same time very friendly, very cordial,” added the religious leader, who noted that they spoke about erecting bridges between the two countries to end “in a gradual and systematic way” the commercial and financial embargo that Washington has applied against Cuba since 1962.
During the 5-day visit, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, and Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando (Florida), called for an end of the US blockade of Cuba and encouraged President Barack Obama to look for “a rapprochement” with the island.
The bishop from Orlando told the press, “The important thing at this time is not to lose the opportunity to come closer and reach more understanding between our two governments, and I believe that the Church – both here and there – should be advocates of this.”
Wenski highlighted, “The Church in Cuba as much as the Church in the United States wants to see change.”
“There have been almost 50 years of a lack of trust on both sides (…) there’s a lot of history to overcome. But for the good of all families that are separated, and those who suffer from that separation, we hope both sides listen to their best angels,” he added.
Opportunities that shouldn’t be lost
After a meeting with Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the Orlando bishop pointed out, “We should encourage them [the US government] so that there is more freedom of travel and also so that the embargo is lifted.” He added, “It is necessary to look for expressions that will increase trust on the parts of the two sides.”
In his opinion, “At this conjuncture there are opportunities, and it’s necessary to see that they aren’t lost.”
Andrew Small, director for the Latin America Conference of Catholic Bishops from the United States, said that the slow pace of the Obama administration regarding a change in Cuba policy is explained, in part, by its being immersed in a process of reviewing its foreign policy.
According to Small, the Obama administration is reviewing policy toward Cuba “step by step; which is something of a concern, because there is so much to do that one might suspect they won’t get very far.”
The delegation, which also included by San Antonio’s auxiliary bishop, Oscar Cantu and two priests, met with the head of the US Interests Section in Havana, Jonathan Farrar.
Cardinal O´Malley, who has traveled to the island several times over the past 20 years, said “a marked improvement has been recorded,” in relations between the Church and the Cuban government, especially after the visit of Pope’s John Paul II in January 1998.
“Now we see that the Church has more space; we want this to be expanded, but one can indeed note that there has been an improvement,” added the cardinal, who said the bishops will carry back the message of rapprochement when they return to the United States.
In statements to news agencies, the president of the Episcopal Conference of Cuba and the archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, Dionisio García, highlighted that the visit contributes to the coming together of the two countries and fulfills a papal appeal for an opening between the island and the world.
The prelates and priests traveled to the outskirts of Havana to the construction site of a new seminary, toward which their US Church was one of the main donors, along with the Conference of Bishops of Italy.
The delegation also traveled to the provinces of Holguin and Santiago de Cuba where they learned the details about the use of close to one million dollars that were contributed by the Catholic Church in the United States in 2008. The funds were used to assist those who suffered from three hurricanes that hit the island that year and in the reconstruction of about 30 temples that were also damaged.
In Santiago de Cuba, from where they returned to Miami on Friday, August 21, the visitors attended a mass in the town of El Cobre, at the sanctuary of the Virgin of Charity, whose restoration will support the collection of donations from American Catholics.