NEW YORK-Despite strict government oversight and a shortage of priests, the Roman Catholic Church still plays a vital role in Cuban society. That was the message delivered by Monsignor Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, vicar general of Havana, during a recent visit to Fordham. At the invitation of the Office of Mission and Ministries at Fordham, the Monsignor presented two lectures at the University: “The Church in Contemporary Cuba,” on Jan. 26 on the Rose Hill campus, and “The Legacy of Father Félix Varela,” on Jan. 27 at Lincoln Center.
The Roman Catholic Church is the largest organized religion, as well as the largest independent institution in Cuba today. However, it has always operated under strict government regulation, said Monsignor de Céspedes. In 1962, the government of Fidel Castro shut down more than 400 Catholic schools. Today, the church is prohibited from establishing schools and universities, and from operating an independent printing press. The church is not allowed to train enough priests for its needs or to recruit adequate numbers of foreign priests.
Still, the church continues to have an impact on Cuban society. One of the greatest missions of the church in Cuba today, said Monsignor de Céspedes, is to inspire an awareness and pride in Cuban culture.
“Young people in Cuba do not have a clear sense of…what direction they ought to go if they are to hold onto and preserve a dynamic sense of their identity and to promote a process of harmonious and meaningful growth,” said Monsignor de Céspedes. “If we are aware of our history and we try to relate this to our current opportunity to build a better society, then this mixture of convictions and will, in itself, will produce a greater sense of responsibility.”
On Jan. 27 in the Leon Lowenstein Chapel on the Lincoln Center campus, Monsignor de Céspedes discussed the many contributions of Father Félix Varela (1788-1853), an exiled Cuban priest and former vicar general of New York who is now being considered for canonization.
“Father Varela was sentenced to death after his participation in the [Spanish Parliament of Cortes in 1821], because with all the Cuban delegates and with the majority of those who were for democracy—the ‘liberals’ of that time—he supported the deposition of King Fernando VII,” said Monsignor de Céspedes. “On account of that sentence, in 1823, he began the way of political exile, which brought him to this country.”
Varela, who Monsignor de Céspedes called “the torch bearer from Cuba,” is best remembered for his ministry to poor Irish immigrants in New York throughout the early to mid-1800s, but he was also a prolific essayist. One of his most important essays, Cartas a Elpidio (Letters to Elpidio), is “a treaty of theological ethics,” according to Monsignor de Céspedes. In this work, Father Varela attempts to reconcile some of the contradictions that are apparent in his own set of beliefs.
“As a priest and man of firm belief, he is convinced that on the basis of his beliefs a building of morals can settle,” said Monsignor de Céspedes. “But, simultaneously, as a liberal and progressive, he feels the necessity to be opposed to the evil that could be rooted in that same religion.”
Father Varela died in St. Augustine, Fla., in 1853, and his remains are now at the University of Havana.