CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 17 August 2019

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Cardinal Ortega the voice of Cuba’s poor dies at 82

VATICAN (CNS): Jaime Cardinal Ortega Alamino, the retired archbishop of Havana, Cuba, was a proud Cuban who pressed for greater freedom for his Church and for an end to the United States (US) embargo on his homeland. He died on July 26 after a long battle with cancer, at the age of 82.
 
A head of the Archdiocese of Havana for almost 35 years, the cardinal had a prominent role as a spokesperson for Cuba’s Catholics on national and international issues, but he also devoted much of his energy to supporting the island’s active Catholics and encouraging them as missionaries to their neighbours.
 
Vatican News reported that Vatican secretary of state, Pietro Cardinal Parolin, sent a telegramme on behalf of Pope Francis, conveying the Holy Father’s condolences and paternal closeness to the relatives, clergy and faithful of the archdiocese who are mourning the late cardinal.
 
Promising his prayers for the repose of Cardinal Ortega, who “served the Church and his brothers in the various offices entrusted to him by Providence”, the pope imparted his apostolic blessing to all, as a sign of Christian hope in the Risen Lord.
 
Cardinal Ortega spent eight months in a communist-government labour camp in between 1966 and 1967, but he went on to become a cardinal and to welcome Pope St. John Paul II to Cuba in 1998, as well as Pope Benedict XVI in March 2012, and Pope Francis in September 2015 and again, briefly, the following February.
 
He used every possible opportunity to plead with the US government to end its economic blockade of Cuba, echoing the position of successive popes that the blockade was keeping thousands of people poor while doing little to pressure the Cuban government to expand freedoms and human rights.
 
In 2014, when it became clear that then-US president, Barack Obama, might be willing to loosen the prohibition, Pope Francis gave two letters to Cardinal Ortega, asking him to deliver one to Raul Castro and the other to Obama.
 
“It was a way of putting them in contact,” Cardinal Ortega told the Irish Times. “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.”
 
As a public figure, the cardinal also devoted much energy to pressing his government to allow the Catholic Church in Cuba to have a public voice and to help serve the poor.
 
Visiting Baltimore in 1997, the cardinal said Cuban Catholics are free to attend Mass, but that does not constitute religious freedom.
 
“There are three liberties: worship, prophetic liberty (religious education), and service. When we have the three liberties, we have freedom of religion,” but, he said, in Cuba “we have only one of them.’’
 
To have true religious freedom, he said, Cuban Catholics would need “to have the possibility of communicating with people by radio or television about their faith, the possibility of having Catholic schools or teaching religion in public schools, the right to have church-run hospitals.’’
 
The Catholic Church’s limited access to public spaces did not, however, dampen Cardinal Ortega’s push to evangelise, it simply meant that he knew sharing the gospel was something that had to begin small, involve person-to-person contact and, often, service opportunities.
 
He told a story to Canadian bishops about young people at the cathedral parish, many of whom would not go to Communion, but when it was cold at night, they would bring hot chocolate to people sleeping on the street and they showed up in force for visits to a state-run home for the elderly.
 
A doctor who worked there and later became the director, befriended the thm. Eventually he was baptised and later, as director, the doctor made sure Mass was celebrated at home every two weeks.
 
While the cardinal worked hard to get churches restored and reopened in Havana, he also encouraged the practice hosting prayer services in their homes. 
 
“There are walls, all kinds of walls, bad memories from the past that have also to be brought down, and that’s the way we do it,” he explained.
 
After seminary studies in Cuba and at the seminary of Foreign Missions in Quebec, he was ordained to the priesthood in 1964.
 
The cardinal was born in Jaguey Grande, on 18 October 1936. His first assignment, as an associate pastor in Cardenas, was interrupted in 1966 when he was detained and sent to forced labour camp.
 
Cardinal Ortega rarely spoke publicly about the eight months he was in the camp, although he did so during an interview in 2014. While he said 
 
almost nothing about the long hours of forced labour and the poor living conditions in the camp, he focused on how “it was a unique life experience for a priest,” one that placed him “in the midst of the people.”
 
He told the newspaper Giron, “From a human point of view, it was atrocious perhaps, if considered from the outside. But everything has to be looked at—in faith we look at everything like that—in the light of God. If God wanted this to happen, then what would he want from this?”
 
After his release, he returned to parish ministry, working in several parishes simultaneously because of a severe shortage of priests in Cuba. He had served as pastor of the cathedral in Matanzas, as president of the Diocesan Commission for Catechesis and began a youth ministry that included summer camps and theatre groups. He also went once a week to Ss. Charles and Ambrose Interdiocesan Seminary in Havana, where he taught moral theology.
 
Pope John Paul named him bishop of Pinar del Rio in 1978 and archbishop of Havana in 1981. He was made a cardinal in 1994.
 
His death leaves the College of Cardinals with 217 members, 120 of whom are under the age of 80 and therefore eligible to vote in a conclave.

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