A New Seminary in Cuba

President Raul Castro showed up at momentous opening ceremonies.

A statue of Christ is seen outside the new national Catholic seminary on the outskirts of Havana Nov. 3. Cuban President Raul Castro joined Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami and other Catholic leaders to open the seminary, the first Catholic construction on the island in more than a half century.
A statue of Christ is seen outside the new national Catholic seminary on the outskirts of Havana Nov. 3. Cuban President Raul Castro joined Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami and other Catholic leaders to open the seminary, the first Catholic construction on the island in more than a half century. (photo: CNS photo/Desmond Boylan, Reuters)

HAVANA — What better sign of a dynamic Church than the need for a new seminary? 

This week in Cuba, the San Carlos and San Ambrosio National Seminary opened about 30 miles outside Havana. It’s the first new religious construction in Cuba in more than 50 years — since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959. It replaces an 18th-century edifice, which will be converted into a Catholic cultural center.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, leading a delegation from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to the opening ceremonies Nov. 3-6, called it “a very significant event.” President Raul Castro attended a civic ceremony Nov. 3 inaugurating the seminary. There was also a blessing of the chapel this morning.

Castro’s presence highlighted recent criticism from some Cuban-Americans that the Church has drawn too close to the regime in arranging for some Cuban political prisoners to be released into exile.

Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino, archbishop of Havana, told the Register last spring that the new seminary proved the “vitality of the Catholic Church” in Cuba.

“We outgrew our seminary here [in Old Havana] many years ago. It was originally the archbishop’s residence,” explained the cardinal. “But we are blessed with friends, especially in the United States, who helped us realize our dream for a new, modern space.”

Some 40 Cuban seminarians are extremely enthusiastic about the prospect of moving to a new building. They’re currently crammed into a Baroque stone villa, palatial but ancient, adjacent to the cathedral of Old Havana.

“We know everything there is to know about each other,” quipped Luis, a seventh-year seminarian who offered this reporter a tour of the old seminary, organized, Spanish-style, around a palm tree-filled open courtyard. The courtyard itself featured a one-armed statue of Christ, damaged in the last hurricane, currently supported by rope rigged to move the statue to the new seminary.

The Knights of Columbus have provided approximately 80% of the $5-million budget to support construction of the new formation center, according to Emilio Mouré, supreme secretary of the fraternal organization. 

Mouré, who was born in Cuba and came to the U.S. with his family in 1967 at age 11, met Cardinal Ortega in 2002, when the cardinal came to a Knights supreme convention.

The two men kept in touch, meeting several more times in the United States. Their relationship grew into a commitment by the Knights to adopt the Cuban seminary as a major — and unusual — project. Last August, the Knights of Columbus awarded Cardinal Ortega the Gaudium et Spes Award (together with a $100,000 honorarium), given to individuals who have contributed both to the Catholic Church and to society.

But Mouré credits Pope John Paul II as being the pivotal figure in launching the seminary.

“The bishops of Cuba wanted it, but Pope John Paul II, being such a visionary, really emphasized its importance. He saw that Cuba had to open to the world, and he felt the seminary would facilitate that.”

The Pope blessed the seminary’s cornerstone when he visited the island in 1998.

He also opened the door to a new era in Church-state relations, by most accounts. “Since the visit of Pope John Paul II, our ability to communicate with the government has been in a constant crescendo,” observed Cardinal Ortega. “We are living in a more normal situation than before.”

U.S. Bishops’ Support

Besides the Knights of Columbus, the USCCB provided support through its annual collection for the Church in Latin America.

Father Andrew Small of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the USCCB’s Latin America collections director, will join the delegation to Cuba this week. He explained that funds collected from American parishes have helped build the new seminary’s chapel as well as an athletic field — a privilege missing at the current urban location.

Father Small described how American collections provide some $25,000-$30,000 to each Cuban diocese, and more than twice that to big dioceses.

“Each year,” he said, “we provide up to $450,000 for the priorities that the local Church sets out.”

Asked prior to the November ceremonies if President Castro or his brother, Fidel, were expected to attend, Father Small said, “I would not be surprised, especially, if Raul participates. He came to the beatification of Brother Jose Olallo in 2008. There seems to be some proximity to the cardinal, and the fact that there are two ceremonies makes me think there will be participation from the government.” 

Church Too Close?

But this perceived “proximity” between Cardinal Ortega and Raul Castro is at the heart of concern, especially by some in the Cuban-American community, that the Church is, unwittingly, functioning too much on behalf of Cuban government interests.

Earlier this year, Cardinal Ortega acted as a mediator to gain release of 52 political prisoners, who were jailed since 2003 for pro-democracy activism. Most prisoners were members of the Christian Liberation Movement (CLM) led by Oswaldo Paya, who remains active in Cuba today.

The prisoners were offered the possibility of escaping miserable conditions in Cuban jails as long as they agreed to leave Cuba, together with their immediate families.

Most of the political prisoners wanted to stay on the island, and 13 have remained in jail rather than accept exile. To date, 39 of them have accepted this conditional release. In most cases, the political prisoners were sent to Spain. The government’s publicly announced deadline for the release of all political prisoners is Sunday, November 7. 

According to Alberto de la Cruz, a blogger and founder of Cubans United for Liberty in Cuba, one political prisoner, Guido Sigler Amaya (incarcerated in the Aguica prison), refused to accept exile to Spain, Mexico or the U.S. — options offered to him, one after the other, as a condition for release. The day after he gave a definitive No to leaving the island, last month, he was threatened with death, humiliated with an invasive body search, moved into cells with common prisoners and beaten up. 

An online open letter addressed to Cardinal Ortega, signed by more than 300 people, expressed concern that the prisoner-release arrangement amounted to forced exile, leaving the men in Spain with few resources, no jobs and untreated medical and psychological problems.

One of the open letter’s authors, Yale University religious studies professor Carlos Eire, explained, “I understand that it is a good thing to free people from jail, but these people were exiled into horrible conditions. I have been in touch with many of the men. Spain won’t give them refugee status, so they don’t receive much help to get established.

“There’s over 20% unemployment in Spain, and they can’t find work for themselves or their families, who were exiled with them. Many have medical and psychological problems — big ones — from the years in jail, and they aren’t getting any help.

“This release was a theatrical piece that the Castro regime put together to try to get the European Union to favor Cuba and to get the U.S. Congress to lift the embargo,” said Eire, who wrote the award-winning memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana.

In August, in his speech at the Knights of Columbus Supreme Convention, Cardinal Ortega referred to the “52 convicts, considered prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International.” 

When asked about this word choice, Father Small, of the U.S. bishops’ conference, said, “What I remember about that speech is that some parts did not seem like the way Cardinal Ortega usually speaks. He has been pretty clear in other contexts that there was no reason for those people to be in jail.”

Father Small added, “Maybe I can just say this: The Church does not seek its own interests; it seeks the good of the people. What I see in Cardinal Ortega’s actions was the cardinal and the Church seeking the good for others, especially the people suffering in prison.

“His support for those who were in prison and their families, by giving them a chance to leave, that was a great expression of the Church at its best: not thinking about how the Church will be perceived, but about the people themselves,” said Father Small.

Yet a parish priest in Cuba who has channeled support for the families of those still in jail said, “The Knights of Columbus should not be too shy to invite CLM members to the seminary opening and request meetings with prisoners of conscience who are still in jail. Otherwise, they will only be remembered for building walls.”

Reached in Spain, former Cuban prisoner of conscience Antonio (“Tony”) Diaz Sanchez, explained that when he first spoke from jail to Cardinal Ortega about leaving Cuba for Spain, he said No; he had no desire to leave his homeland.

But Diaz’s family was desperate to go: They had little money, they worried about his medical condition, and his youngest daughter was suffering psychologically from her father’s long absence. So, in the end, the whole family accepted conditional release and flew to Madrid. 

Regarding the archbishop’s role, Diaz observed, “Cardinal Ortega is the high-ranking prelate in the Cuban Catholic Church — of which I am a member as a layperson. I trust him and the Church because they are God’s means of reaching man.”

He continued, thoughtfully, “As a human being, the cardinal can err — any one of us can. But even when we err, it’s not the mistake that’s most important; it’s the motivation. I believe that all prisoners trust in the cardinal and the Church’s motivations, and we must pray so that it becomes enlightened by the Holy Spirit during these times, for Cuba’s well-being.”

Unwittingly, a Cuban seminarian confirmed the former prisoner’s line of thought. He said, “The cardinal does not care about prizes. The best prize would be acknowledgment from his people that he has been here helping them. When he passes away, many things might be known about his hidden work.”

Said this seminarian, “We live in a difficult country, in a difficult situation. I think the cardinal has been misunderstood, sometimes, because he must do what he can do.”

Register correspondent Victor Gaetan writes from Washington.