Vatican's strategy of engagement with Cuba is bearing fruit

Popes visits prompt Cuban men to consider joining priesthood

By Hatzel Vela - Cuba Correspondent

HAVANA - Javier Chang has been teaching Roman Catholic catechism classes for years in Cuba. He is sharing the principles that his Cuban parents passed on to him even when Fidel Castro, a former Jesuit school student, embraced his atheist revolution.

In the eyes of Castro, Catholicism was the result of the corruption of Spanish colonialism and needed to be eradicated from the island. The Communist leader deported 130 priests in 1961, seized the church's properties and marginalized the nuns and priests who were left. 

Without much fanfare, Chang’s Catholic parents celebrated his baptism and his First Communion. They taught him about the religion even after Castro closed Catholic schools. He was proud when he received the sacrament of confirmation.

Chang got married, became a father to a boy and later got divorced. Now the 48-year-old catechism instructor wants to be a priest. He said there is a need for priests, because “many adults are asking for the sacraments” now.

Chang is among those who believe that the Roman Catholic Church is experiencing a rebirth on the island. The Holy See never cut off Castro. In 1992, Cubans replaced "atheist" for "secular" on their constitution. Before his death, Castro received Pope John Paul II in 1998,  Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 and Pope Francis in 2015.

Father Gilbert Walker, an American priest based in Havana, has been a witness to the changing religious life in Cuba. Bishops, priests and nuns enjoy more freedoms and Cubans are seeing their positions as viable options. 

"More young men since Pope John Paul II’s visit have been interested in the priesthood," Walker said.

The renovation of  The San Carlos and San Ambriosio Seminary, the Jesuits founded in 1689, began in 2006. When it re-opened Nov. 3, 2010, Cuban President Raul Castro joined Holy See representatives at the inauguration ceremony.

Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski and Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, also attended the ceremony in southeast Havana. The school has been educating the next generation of Cuban priests. 

This year about 85 Cubans are getting ready for the priesthood.

Dainier Lazo, 29, said his memories of John Paul II's visit inspired him. There was a time when he could not do the sign of the cross, because his Cuban military father would not allow it. He defied him without rancor and became a priest.

"I think love is sort of the key to this life as well," Lazo said.

Local 10 News' Andrea Torres contributed to this report. 

INTERACTIVE GRAPHIC: Religious symbolism in Cuba

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