A city that time forgot…..

March 31, 2020

At first, the juxtaposition of one of the most beautiful ocean causeways in the world (El Malecon) surrounded by crumbled buildings, is too much to take in. It is heartbreaking and awe-inspiring to see the past and present of the City of Havana before your very eyes. Havana is a city of mixed emotions; no middle ground here. It is at once a feast for the eyes and a punch in the gut. You cry remembering its past, cry seeing its present and cry imagining its future.

In Miami, we are experiencing the “horror” of a lack of availability of toilet paper. In Havana it is non-existent. Paper goods, in general, are an expensive and rare commodity. As is food. Each day starts with a quest to put food on the table, a quest that may take all day. The vast majority of folks in my age group, 50-65 years old are walking zombies.  They have woken up to a terrible but real nightmare where they realize all they were told for a lifetime is a lie. Many have little purpose in life except to survive another day.

Enter the Emmaus experience, brought by the “enemy”, Cubans from Miami.

My wife and I were blessed to have led the first joint men and women Emmaus retreat in Havana. We were joined by an incredible group of Emmaus brothers and sisters from Miami. Many of whom had not returned to their homeland for 50 or more years. We were hosted at the archdiocese retreat house in Havana capable of serving 100 or so guests.  The men and women were separated by floors allowing us to hold both retreats simultaneously.  The first evening was one of reluctance by our island counterparts since in their own words: what are these Miami Cubans going to teach us?

There was one couple having spent a lifetime as leaders of the Santeria cult, very prevalent in Cuba. They were part of a family considered higher-ups in the Santeria leadership. Santeria uses fear and scare tactics to keep their followers involved. For a country that has little, those in this cult somehow find the money to pay for “spiritual” protection and so-called “solutions” to whatever problems they may have. It is virtually impossible, the higher up you are, to leave voluntarily.  But leave they did! When this couple arrived Friday evening they did not even know what the sign of the cross was and knew not one Catholic prayer.  After experiencing the Risen Christ, through the Emmaus experience of personal testimonies and the power of the Holy Spirit, this couple was totally transformed in the Spirit.

Their testimony of conversion is so powerful it convinced me to write my doctoral dissertation (still in its early stage) on the Emmaus experience in Cuba. The Monday after the retreat this couple destroyed all the African Santeria saints they had at home and gave up its meager but for them significant, income.  Because of their leaving the cult they were thrown out of a home they shared with their family and now live in a homeless shelter; which by the way pales in comparison with the luxurious shelters in Miami.

This couple now takes a bus one hour each way to get to their Catholic church to serve and take CCD classes and take a two-hour bus trip each way to attend the weekly Emmaus team meetings. They will soon experience the Catholic sacraments for the first time!

Their example of conversion is just one of many in Cuba. As humble servants in this process, we are taken aback by the love and humility these new brothers and sisters in Christ show us. It is now routine for my wife and me to receive WhatsApp calls from many of them, the only way they can communicate with us. It is heartwarming and inspirational each and every time we speak to them!

In my next post, I will share our experience of the second Emmaus retreat in Havana and our wild and crazy 15-hour bus trip to Santiago to the Basilica of Our Lady of Charity, where we held another Emmaus retreat.

This past weekend we were supposed to attend our 3rd Havana Emmaus retreat but it was canceled because of the Coronavirus. We had approximately 50 men and 50 men, the vast majority young adults, ready to go. We are not sure when we will be able to go back but in the meantime, we are bolstered in our faith knowing we have a brotherhood and sisterhood now rejoicing in the Lord because of their Emmaus experience!

Below are the team pictures of our first Emmaus retreat in Havana. We are beyond blessed for this experience!  Jesus Christ has Risen!

Havana Men 1Havana Women 1

Deacon Cross

 

 


Evangelizing….90 Miles Away

March 28, 2020

Most Cubans automatically know what “90 miles away” refers to…our homeland. Generations have suffered pain, sadness, and melancholy, these feelings still filling the hearts of many Cubans in the diaspora, especially those exiled in the early 1960s.  Life as they knew it was turned upside down, permanently. Many of our family members were jailed, killed or expelled and many were left behind.  Those that were not able to leave Cuba were so scared of their children being indoctrinated, they sent them to the United States, unaccompanied. Thanks to the coordination of the Catholic Church in the United States, over 14,000 children were sent to live with families all over the States in operation Pedro Pan (Peter Pan).  Many parents did not see their children again for years. Castro’s communist revolution, among other atrocities, destroyed families on both sides of the Florida straight.

Those from my generation, having left Cuba in the early 1960s, grew up seeing and feeling all the sadness and in some cases hatred, towards those staying behind in Cuba. In my case, I felt many of those feelings until my uncle, who was the first person to infiltrate Cuba during the Bay of Pigs, was released from Cuba’s hellish prisons after 18 years of incarceration. To my amazement and awe, he came out of prison full of peace and love. He told me if he had not forgiven his oppressors he would have died in jail from hatred and bitterness. What a life lesson for those of us that were able to reinvent our lives comfortably in the great United States!

As I was finishing my diaconate formation, someone I hold in great esteem invited me to participate in an Emmaus retreat in Cuba. To honor what my parents went through, I spent decades saying I would never return. But my parents were also practicing Catholics and supported missions around the world.  Then I remembered my uncles’ selfless act of forgiveness. I felt very selfish and hypocritical to not be part of evangelizing a people that in the vast majority of cases had never heard of our Risen Lord. And Emmaus is the perfect vehicle for evangelization. It is a personal testimony driven, layperson led retreat. Lay people share their conversion stories and the impact the Risen Lord has had in their lives.

Before the 1960s, approximately 90% of Cubans, from a population of 6 million, considered themselves practicing Catholics.  Today it is estimated approximately 4% of Cubans, from a population of 11 million, consider themselves practicing Catholics.  One of Castro’s first acts of the revolution was to expel all priests and close down all churches. He made it illegal to practice any religion at all. Thanks to the visit of Saint Pope John Paul II, arguably the most anti-communist Pope in history, and the subsequent visits of Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, it is now legal to practice religion in Cuba again.

My first trip to Cuba was to Camaguey in December of 2018. Camaguey is located in the center of the island and is the third-largest city in Cuba.  We traveled with religious visas at the invitation of the local archbishop in Cuba. Upon arriving at the airport an immigration officer told me, even though I had a religious visa, I was not allowed to attend any religious functions! The next morning I served at a Mass with the archbishop of Camaguey and he told me that was just an intimidation tactic.  As I sat on the altar, at some point, I realized there was only one person, an elderly lady, in the entire church. That is when it hit home, the immensity of our challenge. How could I let my ego and selfishness get in the way of bringing the Good News to my homeland?!

There were 60 men invited to that first Emmaus retreat in Camaguey. Imagine the first night together. We were a group of 15 Cuban Americans having grown up with a definitive caution and in some cases hatred, of those that stayed behind in Cuba. And there were 60 of them having grown up in Cuba always told we were money-hungry capitalists at best and mafiosos at worse!  After that first night, we quickly realized we were all Cubans and each had our tales of hardship and sinfulness. What united us was God’s love for us and for each other. A priest participated in the retreat incognito to see what it was like. Today he is our liaison for Emmaus retreats in Cuba and was recently named pastor of the parish of the Basilica of Our Lady of Charity, Cuba’s Patron Saint and the holiest place for Cubans from all over the world.

That Sunday in Camaguey, we had our closing Mass.  It was celebrated at a church over 500 years old. The altar was on top of stairs with 30 steps. I was standing next to the archbishop ready to start the procession into the church when the lights suddenly turned off. The church was engulfed in total darkness.  I asked the archbishop if he preferred to celebrate the Mass at the foot of the stairs to not go up 30 steps in the darkness. He told me he would not give “them” the satisfaction. The “them” being the authorities that turned off the electricity as Mass began.  We had one of the most stirring and emotional Masses I ever served in. All in darkness, all sung acapella and all united in God’s love. Below is a picture I took on the altar of the archbishop and the two local priests with one of them holding a flashlight.

Camaguey with Bishops

After the Mass, one of the priests tearfully told us he had been praying for the unification of Cuban Catholics on both sides of the Florida straight for over 20 years, and that Emmaus finally accomplished unification! In 2019 we had 12 more retreats all over the island. And we held one retreat in 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down. We have 18 more retreats planned this year! Over 1,000 men and women on the island have now participated in Emmaus retreats and have been converted after having experienced the Good News of our Risen Christ!

In future blogs, I will share our experience of Emmaus in Havana and at El Cobre in Santiago, at the Basilica of Our Lady of Charity.  Pray for those on the island suffering through the coronavirus. They do not have the resources we have and are suffering as much or worse than we are.

Jesus Christ has risen!

Deacon Cross


Canticle of Zechariah

March 27, 2020

This is the ending refrain of the Canticle of Zechariah, part of morning prayers from the Liturgy of the Hours,  prayed every day by priests, deacons, religious and many lay faithful.                  No further commentary is needed…..

“In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those that dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Amen.


Reflection, Thursday, 4th Week of Lent

March 26, 2020

Frustration, fear, faithlessness.  Sound familiar? These 3 “F” words are filling up our days.  Social distancing, isolation, quarantining. The challenges we face today bring frustration, fear, and faithlessness.  Our first reading today from Exodus, chapter 32, verses 7-14, displays each and every one of these three emotions.  Moses went up the mountain to see God for what seemed an eternity. Once he came back with the 10 commandments the Jews had already melted down their gold jewelry and created a golden calf to worship. It did not matter that God, through Moses, had saved the Jews from slavery. It did not matter God had given them manna from heaven to eat or water at Meribah and Massah. It did not matter God had told them Moses was leading them to the promised land. Once the Jews felt frustration, fear, and faithlessness, they forgot all about God. And all they did was complain and replace the Lord with false gods.

The same three “F” words can be seen in our Gospel reading today from the book of John, chapter 5, verses 31-47. The Jews were once again showing frustration, fear, and faithlessness. This time it was Jesus Christ our Lord that was astounded at their unbelief after all He had done. Jesus himself becomes frustrated at their lack of faith in Him. The Jews did not accept Him and complained about all He tried to do.  Our Lord refers back to Moses and tells the Jews if you did not believe Moses how could you believe me!

My brothers and sisters in Christ, we do not want to fall into the pattern of the 3 “F” words engulfing the Jews. Because Jesus brings us another 3 “F” words.  Faith, Fearlessness, and Forgiveness! You see we have a major advantage over the Jews, we have met the Resurrected Christ! We know this journey of reflection and sacrifice during Lent ends in the most important weekend of mankind, Resurrection Sunday!

Our Lord does so much for us. He won for us salvation; he shows us the way to eternity. He brings us the Good News and shows us that even in difficult times we are to show Faith, Fearlessness, and Forgiveness!

My brothers and sisters in Christ, as we journey through this very unusual and difficult Lenten period, let us remember we know who wins at the end. Let us always remember to live with faith in Him, to not be fearful because we know in the end He wins and along the way, to forgive others as our Lord has forgiven us. Let us remember all the blessings He has given us.

As we become more and more isolated, let us not become more and more uncommunicative. Reach out to those that may be living in fear. Share with them the Good News.  Let us be worthy through our actions of the promises of Christ!  Amen.

Deacon Jorge

Deacon Cross

 


Life in ministry…continues.

March 19, 2020

Six and a half years of diaconate formation culminated in my ordination at St. Mary’s Cathedral on December 14th, 2019. Since then, diaconal ministry has been a whirlwind of activity and new challenges. I am blessed to be assigned to the parish my family and I have worshipped for over 25 years, the Church of the Littel Flower in Coral Gables, Florida. I am also blessed to have a new pastor, Father Manny Alvarez, who is an all-out supporter of the diaconate ministry. That support is also seen with our parochial vicar, Father Luis Flores and our great group of priests in residence. They include Fathers Fidelis Uko, Steven Saawuan and Juan Escamez.  Our former pastor, Father Micahel Davis, was instrumental in my formation with his support until his re-assignment.

One of the pleasant surprises of my new ministry is the opportunity to preach. Sometimes I am allowed to preach two or three times during the week in morning Masses and every now and then at the 5:30pm Mass on Sundays, where I am assigned to. I believe with my whole being that preaching for me is a calling within a calling. Each homily takes a lot of research and prayer, but in the end, the Holy Spirit utilizes my ministry to reach the faithful via the spoken Word. Each opportunity to preach makes me nervous because of the unique opportunity to work with the Spirit to reach a person that may need to be reached that day. And on a personal level, it is incredibly enriching.

This coronavirus outbreak has turned the world upside down, including my ministry. My wife and I participate in Emmaus retreats in Cuba. It is a wonderful ministry bringing the Good News to those that have spent a lifetime without ever knowing about the Risen Christ. We have been to retreats in Havana, Camaguey, Santa Clara and Santiago. We were supposed to be at the third retreat in Havana this weekend but it was postponed because of the virus.

My ministry was also upended by the cancellation of Masses and other liturgical events. It was a prudent move by our Archbishop. I have to admit though I felt a bit lost the morning I woke up and did not have a Mass to serve at! A group of parishioners joined me in replacing 8am mass with the Holy Rosary.  What a beautiful experience we had praying together this morning. We hope to continue that until normalcy is returned to our faith life.

In the days to come, I will periodically utilize this forum to offer a short reflection, on the day’s readings, as I would when preparing for a daily homily.  It is a small token on my behalf to keep us focused on our walk during this special time of Lent. We need to stay united as we journey towards the most important weekend in mankind!

In these tumultuous times, we can count on one thing, Jesus Christ Has Risen! He has Risen Indeed!  May the peace and blessing of our Lord Jesus Christ descend upon all of us. Go in Peace. Deacon Jorge

Deacon Group Pic