By Agostino Bono | CNS
The Cuban church faces the challenge of rebuilding human values in a society that is falling apart economically and ethically, said Msgr. Jose Perez Riera, associate general secretary of the Cuban bishops’ conference.
After more than four decades of communist rule people have lost respect for telling the truth, for personal responsibility and for their human feelings, he said.
The government, instead of helping people achieve the material means to live in dignity, “proposes living in sacrifice,” said Msgr. Perez in a Jan. 23 speech at Jesuit-run Georgetown University in Washington.
The church official said it was impossible to predict what will happen in Cuba after the death of 79-year-old President Fidel Castro, who has led the country since his successful 1959 revolution.
“It is difficult to see right now how changes will take place, but change will happen,” he said.
The main role for the church in a transition period will be—as it is now—to restore human values and promote reconciliation among Cubans inside and outside of the Caribbean nation, he said.
The church has to help morally reconstruct a society “where a youth has to lie so that he doesn’t have problems in school” and “where a worker has to steal paper from the mill where he works so he can trade it for soap,” he added.
This task is in addition to the church’s evangelization work among people who are historically Christian but ignorant of their religion because of decades of government-supported atheism and restrictions on church life, he said.
Msgr. Perez told the story of a bishop who went into the countryside to distribute crosses as an evangelization tool. But the crosses did not have the figure of Christ on them, he said.
“A 50-year-old man returned the cross saying, ‘I want one with the doll on it,’” said Msgr. Perez.
At the same time, Cubans have a strong faith with Catholic roots, he said.
About 85 percent of the population of 11 million identify in some way with the church, but only 5 percent of the population attends weekly Mass, he said.
Regarding current church-state relations, Msgr. Perez said that the church has to maintain a balance between those who want it to become an opposition party and those who want it to become a government ally.
Right now there is “a subtle fight against the church” led by the Communist Party’s religious affairs office, he said.
The office wants to exercise control over the church and treats church-state problems as confrontations, he said.
“We should be dialogue partners trying to resolve problems and seeking common ground,” he said.
Among the problems Msgr. Perez cited are the need to get government approval to build new churches or to repair old ones, the monitoring of priests’ homilies by government agents and the lack of church access to the government-controlled media.
The lack of permission to build new churches has given rise to “prayer houses,” private homes where the residents give permission several times a month for a priest or trained lay person to come and conduct prayer meetings and religious education classes, he said.
But the government may be trying to control these prayer houses by requiring them to register, said Msgr. Perez.
There is no law yet but the registration idea is being discussed, he said.
The prayer houses “are an important sign of the church’s vitality,” said Msgr. Perez. “We are trying to protect them.”
Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Cuba was the catalyst for the increased vitality of church life, he said.
After the pope’s visit, there was an immediate rise in the number of people going to church, being baptized and becoming interested in church life, he said.
In the past few years, this has leveled off, he said.
Economically, the deteriorating situation can be seen by the growing number of parish soup kitchens which provide meals to the elderly and the sick, he said.
The Havana parish where he lives feeds 100 elderly people lacking the economic means to feed themselves regularly, he added.