CUBA interview – ‘The hunger for God is there’
Oliver Maksan -ACN UK
Ulrich Kny, project manager in Cuba for Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), has high hopes for the visit of the pope to the Caribbean island.
Mr Kny, what do you hope the visit of the pope will achieve for the church in Cuba?
We hope that the high standing of Pope Francis worldwide will help the church in Cuba carry out its pastoral mission as a respected entity and without restrictions. Each of the last papal visits made tangible progress in terms of the freedom of the Church and the presence of the Catholic faith in public life. After the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1998, for example, Christmas Day was declared a state holiday. In addition, in the run-up to his visit a decade-long ban on public expressions of religion, including the celebration of Mass and processions, was lifted. That really was a breakthrough. The faith became visible once more.
Did the visit of Benedict XVI also have such positive effects?
Yes, even though to a slightly lesser degree than that of John Paul II. After the visit of Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, for example, Good Friday was once more declared a holiday. However, the development towards greater church normality lost impetus after this. I very much hope that the visit of Pope Francis will get things moving again. Because, despite the progress that has been made over the past years, the situation of the church is still not without difficulties.
What special pastoral challenges does the church face in Cuba?
You have to realise that fifty-five years of Communism have left their mark. Although sixty per cent of Cubans are still baptised Catholic, only two per cent regularly attend Mass on Sundays.
What is the church doing to change this?
The church is doing everything in its power to testify to the faith in Jesus Christ and His message. As an example, it is trying to initiate an intense dialogue with civil society by playing an active role in the rich cultural life of Cuba and holding concerts, exhibitions, and contests. The church wants to be experienced as an asset for the whole of society. In Santiago de Cuba, for example, the church set up a cultural centre of this type with the help of Aid to the Church in Need. Among other things, the centre offers classes for small business owners which also touch upon the values of Catholic social teaching. The cultural centre “Padre Félix Varela” in Havana, which the Holy Father will visit on the evening of 20 September, is another of several centres across the country that combine culture, faith and social initiatives in this way.
Have these initiatives helped the proclamation of faith?
I would say yes. Over the past few years a growing interest in Christianity has become evident. The hunger for God is there. One can surely speak of a small Spring of Faith. When a copy of the miraculous image of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre travelled across the country a few years ago, its journey was followed with great enthusiasm and public interest. The number of adult baptisms has also increased. Greater interest in the Catholic faith is being shown, especially among the young generation. It often happens that the grandparents pass their beliefs on to their grandchildren, while the parents have grown up as complete atheists. The visit of Pope Francis will surely awaken further interest in the faith here.
Since when has Aid to the Church in Need been helping the church in Cuba?
We have been supporting the church in Cuba with prayers and financial aid since 1963. The church experienced its most difficult period in the 1960s, following the 1959 revolution. At the time, the Communist regime expropriated countless church buildings and many priests and religious were forced to leave the island. It took a long time before the church more or less recovered from this trauma.
On what does Aid to the Church in Need focus its support in Cuba?
Our aid has primarily been focused on creating a church infrastructure and strengthening the presence of the Church locally. For this, over 1.6 million euros have been donated this and last year alone. Cuba continues to enforce strict restrictions, especially regarding the construction of new church buildings, making it almost impossible to do so. There are, however, rare exceptions, which we of course support with funding. One such instance was when, following the visit of Pope Benedict XVI, President Raul Castro gave the Church a piece of property in the capital city of Havana for the construction of a church. This was a sensation. A parish church is currently being erected on the property that will be consecrated to the Holy Pope John Paul II. Quite recently, the government also gave back a number of church buildings that had been confiscated. These are usually in catastrophic condition. We are helping to restore them so that they can be used once more.
How else does Aid to the Church in Need support the church?
In order to maintain pastoral life on the island, a primary concern is collecting funding for the purchase of vehicles. There is a great shortage of priests in Cuba. For this reason, the priests in rural areas especially often have to cover large areas and travel great distances. In doing so, they have to rely on vehicles that are, however, very difficult to obtain or very expensive in Cuba. Despite this, just recently we were able to introduce replacement motors and mopeds on a small scale. In this, the upcoming visit of Pope Francis has already made a positive impact. And then of course there is funding for the livelihood of priests and religious. We help the priests through Mass stipends and a number of congregations of nuns receive annual subsistence aid. We also support the Carmelite convent in Havana, which is practically the spiritual backbone of the church in Cuba. Fortunately, in the last few years the authorities have allowed the Church to establish new communities of women in Cuba. Aid to the Church in Need has helped them get started.
DidAid to the Church in Need also help the church prepare for the visit of the pope?
Yes. In the city of Holguín, we donated funds to decorate the stage on which the pope will be celebrating Mass. In addition, we provided for seating on the grounds. We also agreed to purchase 2000 colourful balloons in the colours of the Cuban flag. The balloons will be filled with helium and set free from the Loma de la Cruz, from which the pope will bless the city. In the archdiocese Santiago de Cuba, we also played a role in improving the furnishings of the “Casa del Clero Retirado” and of its immediate neighbour, the house of retreat “San Basilio Magno”. The Holy Father and his delegation will be staying there on the night of the 21st to 22nd of September.