Pope names Camaguey archbishop, who helped rebuild church, to Havana

IMAGE: CNS/Nancy Phelan Wiechec

By Carol Glatz

Francis named Archbishop Juan Garcia Rodriguez, who has worked quietly to help
rebuild the Cuban church, physically and spiritually, to be the new archbishop
of Havana.

He succeeds 79-year-old Cardinal
Jaime Ortega Alamino of Havana, whose retirement was accepted by the pope the
same day. The Vatican made the announcements April 26.

The 67-year-old native of
Camaguey has been described as a bishop in the style of Pope Francis. Known for
his missionary spirit and as a man of prayer, he has the ability to remain calm
in the midst of any storm.

He was among the Cuban church
officials who worked helping the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who lost their
homes and belongings during one of the worst natural disasters in the country’s
recent history — Hurricane Ike in 2008.

At the time, Archbishop Garcia was
president of the Cuban bishops’ conference, but he was on the scene loading up
sacks of beans, rice and “guayaba” paste, a popular type of fruit
jam, to take to the people of the province of Pinar del Rio, which had been hard
hit by the hurricane.

He found ways to help catechize Cuba
after nearly 50 years when religious practice was discouraged by the communist
government. Funding from U.S. Catholics helped support projects throughout Cuba,
including work by Archbishop Garcia, who enlisted grandparents — who grew up at a
time when they were taught about the church — to help educate their grandchildren
about the faith.

He told U.S. visitors in 2009 that
grandparents teaching the youngest generation had been an effective system of
catechesis “because they remember. Then the children help teach their
parents,” whose generation missed out on religious education during the
government’s most restrictive period.

He said efforts as simple as
showing religious-themed films and television programs also were useful
catechesis tools.

In 2008, Archbishop Garcia
asked Pope Benedict XVI to visit Cuba in 2012, which he did, to help celebrate
the 400th anniversary of Cuban devotion to Our Lady of Charity.

“Despite many years of
silence about God, in Cuba there is a growing religious thirst and an
ever-increasing devotion, especially to Our Lady of Charity, the patron of the
country,” Archbishop Garcia said in an interview with the Vatican
newspaper in 2008.

A new wave of evangelization has
begun among Cuba’s children, and groups of teens and young adults are “living
the commandments and the beatitudes despite being mocked and marginalized,”
he told the paper.

Archbishop Garcia said the Cuban
bishops wanted Pope Benedict to witness “our healthy pride in the people
who have remained faithful to Christ and his church throughout the long years
in which they were criticized” for believing.

“The Cuban church is a
small and fragile flock. But at the same time, it is faithful, open, serving,
joyful and happy to live its faith and proclaim it,” the archbishop said.

“In our churches, you find
Catholics and potential Catholics, people who follow popular religions and
syncretistic believers, as well as diverse political opinions,” he said. “The
church welcomes them as a mother and guides them on the path toward Jesus
Christ, prince of peace and teacher of truth.”

Archbishop Garcia
said the Catholic Church in Cuba suffers from a serious lack of priests; at the time he spoke, the
nation had about 11
million residents, but only about 340 priests.

“It is clear that the
harvest is plenty, but the laborers are few,” he said. “Yet the thirst
for God continues to grow.”

Archbishop Garcia also said that
since the late 1980s, when the government began allowing Catholic pastoral
workers to visit prisoners, the church’s prison ministry has grown enormously.

During the bishops’ “ad limina”
visit to Rome in 2008, he told Pope Benedict, “At this moment in Cuba there is
talk of changes, which the people and the church greet with hope.”

“We ask the Virgin of
Charity that these changes would make Cuba a more fraternal and peaceful land,
guided by the principles of the common good, subsidiarity, participation and
solidarity and by the fundamental values of truth, charity, justice and
freedom,” he said.

Born in Camaguey in 1948, he was
ordained in his home archdiocese in 1972 and served in a number of parishes
there. He was also the founder and director of a school for missionaries in the

He was appointed auxiliary
bishop of Camaguey in 1997 and was elevated to archbishop in 2002. He served as
president of the Cuban bishops’ conference and represented Cuba in the meeting of Latin American and Caribbean bishops in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007.

Cardinal Ortega served as
archbishop of Havana since 1981, a period that saw openings under the communist
government. He hosted Pope Benedict, St. John Paul II and Pope Francis on
visits to Cuba. Under his leadership, the church worked quietly to provide
social services to Cubans affected by the more-than-50-year U.S. economic
embargo of Cuba, and the cardinal worked to help thaw chilly relations between
the two countries.

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Follow Glatz on Twitter: @CarolGlatz.

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