CL in the world

It Happens in Cuba

The first congress on bioethics in Havana, promoted by the John Paul II Center, included a presentation of Fr Giussani’s The Religious Sense. Before an audience of 200 people, outstanding figures in the Cuban religious and secular world discussed in depth the concepts of elementary experience, freedom, and faith. The surprise of a phone call


When I first went to Cuba in 1989, I found what still seemed to be a Church in the catacombs. There was, however, a growing number of young converts with amazing stories that revealed the power of grace, their hearts burning with the desire to share their discovery with their friends in school and at work. Under the leadership of Havana’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega and the Cuban bishops, the Church in Cuba had become the space where something totally new, something different and unforeseen could be experienced. Again and again, these young people told me that what the Revolution had promised, they had finally encountered in the Church. Now they were anxious to offer to the Revolution the witness of their discovery.

I returned in 1997 to work on an article for The New Yorker Magazine on the upcoming encounter between Pope John Paul II and President Fidel Castro. The Cuban Church was about to exit the dark catacombs and stand in the full light of day. Church leaders realistically did not expect that the Pope’s visit would bring about the elimination of all governmental obstacles to its mission, but they were determined not to go back into the catacombs. It was as if air from that space where something new and unforeseen was experienced had spread throughout Havana like a soft, suggestive fragrance. When I suddenly entered into the gigantic Revolution Plaza and saw the picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus covering more than half of the façade of one of the buildings that serve as the government’s central offices, I remember thinking, “Now I understand what grace is like!”

The first time
I returned the following year for the Pope’s visit, and the entire city seemed as if bathed by a strange light. I wondered whether this was the result of my own awareness of the Origin of what was happening, but I could see that even those who knew nothing about the Pope and the Church sensed it and seemed inexplicably happy. On the night the Pope returned to Rome, I was invited to attend a reception for the American bishops hosted by President Fidel Castro. That was the first time Father Giussani’s book The Religious Sense peeped in Cuba. President Castro had asked my why the Church had more converts in Africa than in Asia, and I replied in terms of the different expressions of the religious sense in those cultures. Seeing that he was truly interested in the subject, I asked Castro whether I could send him a book on the religious sense, and he said he would be glad to receive it. Returning to New York, I sent him a copy of the book in Spanish, autographed by Father Giussani. A few weeks later, I received confirmation that it had been received.

The second time
On Saturday, February 1st of this year, Father Giussani’s The Religious Sense was presented in Havana. The audience was made up of over 200 participants in the First National Congress on Bioethics ever held in Cuba, sponsored by the John Paul II Center for Bioethics, founded as a result of the Pope’s visit. Biologists, medical doctors, sociologists, ethicists, philosophers, and theologians from Cuba and around the world attended the three-day event, including many involved with Cuba’s famous medical research program. The Congress was offered by the Church in Cuba as one example of its desire to promote a dialogue between those who hold different beliefs and convictions but are looking for a point of encounter from which to work together for the betterment of society. An amazed ethicist from Belgium told me, “In Europe this would not be possible. The Church can indeed hold meetings on bioethics, but those with different points of view would not participate in such impressive numbers, especially representatives from the State.” That this is possible in Cuba certainly reflects the situation of Cuban society at this point in history, but above all, it is one of the fruits of the faith and prayers of the Cuban Church and of its fidelity to what the Lord has made possible as a result of the Holy Father’s visit.

The idea for the presentation of The Religious Sense in this context came from the small group of dedicated young people that constitute the presence of Communion and Liberation in Cuba. Yordanis, the 27-year-old responsible for the Cuban community of CL, told me of the community’s efforts to be recognized by the Archdiocese, and I promised him that I would speak with Cardinal Ortega, who is a personal friend. I was sure that I could see the Cardinal during his next visit to New York, or else, I would visit him when I came to Cuba soon to direct a retreat for the priests of the Archdiocese of Camaguey. At that time, I would attempt to arrange a meeting with the Cardinal in Havana so that we could present the community’s hope to serve the Church. We also spoke of the possibility of inviting a few of their friends for a discussion of The Religious Sense
, a book which seemed appropriate for the Cuban youth’ s almost total absence of knowledge about religion. A few weeks after returning to New York, I received an invitation to address the Congress on Bioethics in Havana, so I notified Yordanis of the possibility of meeting then with the Cardinal. In addition, the visit would give us the chance to be together for a few days and have our discussion about the book. That was the end of my contribution. Everything else happened without any planning on my part. From our experience in the United States this past year, I knew I could expect miracles.
Enthusiastic about the possibilities opened up by this opportunity, contact was made with the ecclesiastical authorities, including the Nuncio in Havana. As a result, the book’s presentation became part of the Congress itself, and what was visualized as a small meeting between friends became a major public event.

The Religious Sense
was presented by a panel composed of Dr Rene Zamora, President of the John Paul II Center for Bioethics, Dr Rolando Suarez Cobian, a prominent Cuban layman, Yordanis, and myself. Dr Zamora welcomed us on behalf of the Center and turned the microphone over to Yordanis, who introduced Fr Giussani and the Movement to the participants, explaining the origin of the book. Underlining the ecclesial dimension of Fr Giussani’s charism, Yordanis said that the presentation of the book was an expression of the Movement’s desire to assist the Cuban Church in her mission.

Speaking next, Dr Suarez Cobian went over the book’s contents, underlining the role played by the author’s many references to the great works of literature. Fr Giussani, he said, shows how “reality itself provokes man in an experience of knowledge and a criterion to evaluate what reality provokes in us.” It is a matter, he explained, of paying attention to the “elementary experiences” and needs of the heart rather than following the “common mentality.”

Dr Suarez Cobian paid particular attention to Fr Giussani’s view of liberty, and its relation to faith and prayer. The Church, he insisted, is the custodian of human liberty. He concluded by saying that the book offered “practical elements applicable to the man of today immersed in the circumstances and reality of post-modernity.”

It was my turn to speak next. I began by thanking, in Fr Giussani’s name, the Church authorities and the directors of the John Paul II Center for the opportunity to present the book. This was, I explained, the second presentation of the book in Cuba, only that the audience in the first presentation was made up of only one person. Of course, they were amazed that this person was, in fact, President Fidel Castro. Given the charism of our Movement, I explained, I was not surprised that Fr Giussani’s vision was appropriate for a moment such as the Holy Father’s visit to Cuba, in which the Church was demonstrating that passion for humanity that animated her wishes to serve Cuban society. The occasion of the Congress on Bioethics, a fruit of the Pope’s visit, was also another appropriate setting for the presentation of Fr Giussani’s thought on the religious sense as that which moves all human beings to search for truth, justice, freedom, and happiness.
Finally, I explained that this passion for humanity was what animated the community of Communion and Liberation in Cuba, which, though small in numbers, is great in its desire to be of service to the Church and the Cuban people.

The presentation concluded with remarks by a Cuban poet, Juan Lazaro Besada, who read from a poem in his book Soliloquies, which was also available to those participating in the Congress. I told those present that Fr Giussani would be very happy to hear that a book on poetry was part of the presentation of The Religious Sense, especially this book whose sentiments demonstrated the profound needs of the human heart.

After the presentation, friends of the Movement distributed over one hundred copies of The Religious Sense, promising to come back the next day with more copies.

I had been asked to close the Congress the next day with an address showing how the philosophical and theological anthropology of John Paul II allows those with different beliefs to come together for a “social dialogue.” In this context, the remaining copies of The Religious Sense were plagiarized by dozens of interested participants.

At the end of the session, I introduced Yordanis and others from the Movement to His Eminence Cardinal Ortega, who assured them that he welcomed the work of Communion and Liberation, whose presence would be recognized by the Archdiocese. These sentiments were repeated to me by one of the auxiliary bishops, by the Apostolic Nuncio, and by the Secretary of the Bishops’ Conference.

Also present at the concluding session of the Congress was Caridad Sanchez, Minister for Religious Affairs of the Cuban Communist Party, whom I had met on my previous trips. I told her about the presentation of the book and she expressed some curiosity about the Movement’s political positions. I assured her that the Movement wished nothing but to serve the Church and the Cuban people, and that the book presented offered the basis for a dialogue that sets aside all ideological prejudices. She said she had not read the book, so I told her about the copy sent to President Castro. “I’d love to read it too,” she said. And so we found a copy for her.

It is difficult to describe the experience of overwhelming amazement and joy on the part of Yordanis and the other friends of the Movement after the presentation. They were witnesses to a miracle, they said, beaming with joy. And yet it was only the beginning. A few minutes after the presentation, Fr Giussani himself called on my cellular phone to thank them and embrace them. He spoke with Yordanis, inviting him to come to visit him in Italy soon.

As we have experienced again and again this past year in the USA, a miracle happens by its own power, not as the result of our efforts. Our responsibility is to be attentive to its manifestation and to follow it with our testimony and offer of unconditional friendship.