HAVANA – Jose Felix Perez, better known as Father Pepe, defied the norms and became the first working-class priest in the Communist Cuba of the 1970s.
When he walked into a government office to ask for work in 1974, the young priest left an official speechless. Atheism was the official doctrine. Many priests were imprisoned or forced to flee the country. The official knew Perez was brave to wear a cassock.
Perez continued his work as a parish priest of the town of Jovellanos, in the province of Matanzas. About 10 months after he made his request for employment, he received a letter of approval. He was 27 when he took on the job of carrying heavy metal that he could barely lift.
"The island's political indoctrination, at times, tried to block or reject the identity of Jesus and the true history of the church," Perez said.
Perez worked in the government's plant to manufacture agricultural tools. Through his struggles, he found inspiration in Charles Eugene de Foucauld, a French Catholic priest who lived among the Tuareg in the Sahara in Algeria. He was killed in 1916 and is considered by the Roman Catholic Church to be a martyr.
While he worked at the plant, Perez spent his free time celebrating Masses, baptisms, funerals and weddings. He worked at the plant until 1981. He was appointed to the seminary rectorate of Cuba.
Perez served as executive secretary of the Episcopal Conference for 22 years. He never abandoned his spirit of conciliation, and was the organizer of three successful papal visits to the island.
"It was a joyous time," Perez said about the pope's first visit to the island.
Pope John II brought a powerful message to Fidel Castro in 1998. He celebrated Mass at the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana. Perez said his visit marked a "before and after" phase on the island.
"May Cuba, with all its magnificent possibilities, open itself to the world," John Paul II said, "and may the world open itself to Cuba."
Pope Benedict was in Cuba in 2012. He met with Raul Castro in the eastern city of Santiago and celebrated Mass before a crowd of some 200,000. Pope Benedict also asked Cubans to "strive to build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity."
Pope Francis visited about three years later and met with Fidel Castro after the restoration of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the United States. Pope Francis urged the Communist regime to give Cubans "freedom, the means and the space" to practice their religion.
The visits had a powerful impact. Perez continued his service as a priest of the Santa Rica de Casia church in western Havana, and continues to ask for more freedom of religion on the Communist island.