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.
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!