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Communist Party leaders attend Cardinal Jaime Ortega's funeral service in Havana

Catholic leader protects church in Cuba through collaboration, perseverance

Hortensia Garcia traveled about two hours to Havana from Cárdenas, a port town in Cuba's Matanzas province.

On Sunday morning, Garcia walked Old Havana's cobbled streets alone to the historic Havana Cathedral, also known as La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada.

Garcia was among the dozens of Cuban Roman Catholics who traveled far to attend the funeral service of Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega, who died Friday aged 82.  

"He was a man who was profoundly devoted to Jesus," said Garcia, adding she had known Ortega since he was ordained Aug. 2 1964.

Despite Catholics' painful struggle on the island, Cubans were not surprised to learn that top Communist Party leaders, including Cuban First Vice President Salvador Mesa, attended Ortega's Requiem Mass on Sunday at the Havana Cathedral.

"He was a man who built bridges," Garcia said, adding that his perseverance was inspiring. 

Cuba's Cardinal Jaime Ortega celebrates Good Friday mass during Holy Week in the cathedral in Havana, Cuba, April 6, 2012.
Cuba's Cardinal Jaime Ortega celebrates Good Friday mass during Holy Week in the cathedral in Havana, Cuba, April 6, 2012.

Ortega, the son of a sugar worker, was born Oct. 18, 1936 in Jagüey Grande, a town north of the Bahia de Cochinos in Cuba's Matanzas province. His pastoral outreach --- amid Marxist-Leninist efforts to turn the island into an atheist country -- landed him in a labor camp in 1966. 

After authorities freed him from the labor camp in 1967, he went on to become bishop of Pinar del Rio on Dec. 4, 1978. He was appointed Archbishop of Cuba on Nov. 20, 1994, and held the job for 35 years while developing a reputation as a prudent diplomat. 

While defending religious freedom in Cuba, he opposed the U.S. embargo. It was a conciliatory position that allowed him to improve church-state relations. Although his stance wasn't very popular with Cuban exiles in South Florida, Archbishop Thomas Wenski also attended the Mass om Sunday. 

The nonconfrontational church leader was remembered for hosting three historic papal visits to the island and for arranging Fidel Castro's meetings with Pope John Paul II in 1998, Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 and Pope Francis in 2015. 

Cuba's Cardinal Jaime Ortega, right, stands behind Pope Francis in the popemobile as they arrive for mass at Revolution Plaza in Havana, Cuba, Sept. 20, 2015.
Cuba's Cardinal Jaime Ortega, right, stands behind Pope Francis in the popemobile as they arrive for mass at Revolution Plaza in Havana, Cuba, Sept. 20, 2015.

After Castro ceded power to his brother Raul Castro in 2008, Ortega negotiated the release of 126 political prisoners in 2010 and 2011. He also secretly helped Pope Francis to deliver letters to Raul Castro and to former President Barack Obama in 2014. 

"It was a way of putting them in contact," Ortega told the Irish Times in 2017. "That was the desire of the Holy Father. People must communicate. He was not a mediator between two nations or between two governments, but he wanted to put the two presidents in contact."

On Dec. 17, 2014, Ortega celebrated Pope Francis' 78th birthday and the announcements by Castro and Obama that both the U.S. and Cuba were going to work on restoring relations. He celebrated the official reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana with then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in 2015.

On April 26, 2016, Ortega retired, and Juan de la Caridad García was appointed archbishop. The change in leadership happened months before President Donald Trump was elected and reversed Obama's policy. 

"His trust in God was his light," Garcia said about the struggles that Ortega faced to keep the church alive in Cuba. 

The Vatican estimates 60% of the Cubans living on the island are Catholic. The Holy See reports there are 17 bishops, 361 priests, 304 parishes, 2,122 lay missionaries, 4,133 catechists and 12 centers of Catholic education. 

Puerto Rico Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves and Cardinal Seán Patrick O'Malley, of Boston, also attended the funeral service. Ortega was buried at the Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón in Havana's Vedado neighborhood. 

 


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