Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana (left) with state and party leader Fidel Castro (1926-2016).
(Havana) Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, retired Archbishop of San Cristobal de la Habana and former Primate of Cuba, died last July 26th. The letter of condolence by Pope Francis was signed - unusual for the currently ruling Church leader - merely by Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin.
Cardinal Ortega was born on October 18, 1936, two months older than Pope Francis. The son of a sugarcane plantation worker was allowed to attend a grammar school. After a year at the university, he entered the diocesan seminary. With the help of the French Quebec foreign mission, Ortega studied in Canada for four years, so he did not experience the first years of dictatorship after the 1959 Communist seizure of power. In 1961, the Communists confiscated all 245 Catholic schools in Cuba and banished many priests from the country. Thousands shouted to Castro's execution squads: "Viva Cristo Rey!" (Long live Christ).
In 1964 Ortega returned to Cuba and was ordained a priest of the diocese of Matanzas. In the course of Church persecution, he was also imprisoned in 1966, because of his pastoral work as a chaplain. After his release in 1967, he became a pastor and had to serve a number of parishes often far removed
FRom one another because of the number of priests decimated by the regime.
In 1969 he became a parson of Matanzas and had at the same time to look after another city parish and two churches outside the city.
In 1979, Pope John Paul II appointed him Bishop of Pinar del Rio, only two years later, Archbishop of San Cristobal de la Habana and thus the country's primate. In 1994, the same Pope created him cardinal. As such, he participated in the 2005 and 2013 Conclaves. Then he made no bones about voting for the Archbishop of Buenos Aires. He justified this step with Bergoglio’s speech in the general congregations that preceded the conclave. This speech had impressed him greatly.
Pope Francis left Cardinal Ortega in office until his 80th year, which is rarely the case under the current head of the Church. On April 26, 2016 he was retired as Archbishop of Havana. His weight in the Cuban episcopacy was also made clear by his participation in the Ad Limina visit to Rome in May 2017, although he was retiring.
The situation of the Church in the Communist dictatorship turned out to be very difficult from
1959onwards. On the one hand, the Church was massively weakened. 150 priests were banished to Spain
alone. A serious bloodletting. Today there are about 350 priests in the eleven dioceses of Cuba. Before the revolution it was almost 900.
Raul Castro with Cardinal Ortega
Special attention was given by the Primate to the promotion of priestly vocations. During his time as archbishop of Havana, Mgr. Ortega consecrated a total of 24 priests. The number is modest for such a long term. However, it is remarkable for Cuba, where every pastoral activity encounters state hostility.
The visibility of the Church in public space was wiped out by the Communists. However, unlike other states where "real socialism" reigned, Cuba maintained full diplomatic relations with the Holy See. The Chargé d'Affaires of the Vatican thus became a visible representative of the Church. In addition, there were attempts to replace the Church by the establishment of a schismatic, regimental parallel structure. But when success did not materialize, Fidel Castro contented himself with promoting Christianity and socialism. A serious division of the Church by Marxist left-Catholics could be avoided.
To make matters worse, that Archbishop Francisco Ricardo Oves Fernández of Havana suffered from a nervous condition and in 1980 at the age of 52 years had to be recalled. His successor was Cardinal Ortega, who had the difficult task of managing the balancing act between the primary tasks and the protection of the Church on the one hand, and the fact that the Church became the main reservoir of political dissidents on the other. One of the Catholic critics of the regime was Oswaldo Payá, leader of the Movimiento Cristiano de Liberacion (Christian Liberation Movement), who died on 22 July
2012 in a "very suspicious car accident", according to Swiss journalist Giuseppe Rusconi.
35 years Archbishop of Havana and Primate of Cuba
From the ranks of the political opposition, Cardinal Ortega was therefore reproached for showing too much restraint towards the Communist rulers. He was the "toothless adversary" of Fidel Castro.
Most recently, this criticism was raised in connection with the Pope's visit in 2015, when dissidents already known in advance were arrested and imprisoned for the duration of the papal visit. Even on the sidelines of the official appointments of Francis, there were arrests, as dissidents wanted to draw attention to their fate. Neither Pope Francis nor Cardinal Ortega commented on this, which was also criticized by Oswaldo Payá's widow. Ofelia Acevedo accused the cardinal of a "hostile attitude towards the dissidents and regime critics."
"Pope Francis knows the miserable situation of the Cubans," said the widow, who was received in 2014 by Francis in private audience. The critics of the regime had hoped for a meeting with the Pope, which was not part of his visit to Cuba.
Since 2014, European media have been talking about a "relaxation" between the regime and the Church, which is true at the political level. On the Church side, it was reached by Pope Francis and Cardinal Ortega. For them, however, a price has to be paid. The Vatican is apparently hoping for a "Christian taming" of Communist rulers, who could then remain in power, and perhaps even should. See also: 60 years of Cuban Revolution - and the Vatican celebrates a bit with.
As usual at the death of a Cardinal, the Pope sends a letter of condolence to the diocese. Unlike usual, the condolence telegram was sent to the Archbishop of San Cristobal de la Habana last Saturday on behalf of Pope Francis, but signed by Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin.
The reason is currently unknown.
Requiescat in pace.
Text: Giuseppe Nardi
Trans: Tancred firstname.lastname@example.org