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


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

 


He had the most profound respect and love for the Eucharist…..

September 20, 2016

I haven’t blogged in a while – but was inspired to do so by a blog written by a real blogger and my Brother In Christ, Carlos Espinosa. Visit him at “Living My Faith On A High Wire”. He wrote about the passing of our mutual friend Pepe Merino. What follows is my take on Pepe’s passing.

“My BIC, the biggest favor you can do for me is to find a way I can take the Eucharist; I will be eternally grateful.” On September 12th at approximately 1:00am, my Brother In Christ, Jose Pepe Joe Merino, passed to God’s eternal Glory. Almost exactly two months to the day he was diagnosed with cancer.

There are so many heart warming stories I could share about my BIC. Even though I am blessed with many Brothers In Christ, he is the only one that called me BIC and I always reciprocated. In the hospital he made the request I quoted above. I became a man on a mission. You see, Pepe had not partaken in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and consequently hadn’t received Holy Communion in 40 years!  He had an impediment from a prior marriage and respected the Eucharist so much he refrained from accepting; no matter how desperate he was to do so.

We are blessed with many wonderful priests at our parish, the Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables. I went to see Father Phillip Tran, ordained barely two years ago. With our Pastor Father Michael Davis’ blessing he agreed to visit Pepe at the hospital. Once there he determined Pepe’s terminal disease, along with other factors, made Pepe an acceptable candidate for both Reconciliation and Holy Communion.

After Pepe’s confession with Father Tran, I stepped into the hospital room with the Eucharist. What a momentous and overwhelming moment! With his wife Miriam by his side, along with his two oldest daughters and friends, I gave him the Eucharist for the first time in 40 years!

His facial expression was a mix of elation, awe and gratitude. He wept with happiness. It was such a humbling moment for me and one that deepened my love and respect for the Eucharist more than I could ever imagine. Pepe considered it such an honor and had so much respect for the Eucharist. It was truly a real treasure for him.

I am in the third year of a five year diaconate formation program.  I know I will have other happy moments and some sad ones in my future ministry; if God allows me to complete the training. But I don’t think I will have another moment like the one my BIC and I shared!

I am blessed with being able to go to Mass most mornings. I don’t think I will ever feel the same about accepting Holy Communion ever again. My BIC showed me how awesome it is to accept our Lord in the form of the Eucharist. I will never forget Pepe’s expression of love.

Our pastor authorized a team of BICs to take the Eucharist to Pepe to his house on a daily basis.  I was also blessed in being the last one he was able to take Communion from; since towards the end he no longer was able to swallow.  Before his passing I heard the same priest gave his wife Miriam absolution and she also accepted Holy Communion for the first time since she married Pepe.

From a seemingly disastrous human experience, a wonderful spiritual gift emerged. Both Miriam and Pepe reconciled with our Lord and partook in Holy Communion.  I will be for ever grateful to the Lord for allowing me to be a part of this beautiful pastoral experience. It is a lesson for us all.

Thank you my BIC. I will think of you every time I take Holy Communion to the sick or home-bound.  And I will never take it for granted.

my-bic

My BIC!


Diaconate formation….2 years and counting….

April 11, 2016

The diaconate formation experience has exceeded my expectations. I was told time would fly but could never have imagined how fast.  My last blog was posted after completing my first semester of the first year.  Now I am completing the second semester of the second year!

We are blessed to have a wonderful group of God loving men going through this journey together.  This group includes the 4th year “seniors” moving into their final year in preparation of ordination. These five men have been a great example of holiness and reverence for our group.

Our group, soon to enter the third year of the five year program, numbers 12. Godincidence? We come from all walks of life and have established a camaraderie that will last a lifetime.

When the diaconate was re-established, after the Second Vatican Council, it was designed as a three year program. Later it was changed to a four year program and recently moved to five years. A Masters in Theology was added in addition to more pastoral/practical education.  We will be truly prepared and educated to serve our assigned flock if we are given the blessing of ordination!

Our school year includes classes every Wednesday evening and one Saturday a month at the St. John Vianney Seminary in Miami. In addition we have one full weekend a month at the St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach. There we are joined with Palm Beach candidates. During our weekends we start and end the days with prayers, with classes sandwiched in between.  What a beautiful and moving experience to hear 40 men praying and singing acapela in a small chapel!

As a teen I felt the calling to the priesthood and actively explored it.  I remember telling my father I was considering the calling and remember when I told him I didn’t think it was for me.  About 20 years ago I explored a calling to the diaconate but was told at the time I was too young.  That thinking has changed allowing men with young children to take part in diaconate formation. I tried again a few years ago and was told the program was being updated from four years to five and no enrollments were being accepted at the time.

So as we hear many times, it is all up to God’s timing and plan and not up to ours! I am blessed to have the support of my wife and my two daughters. Without their support this program would be impossible to complete. My pastor, along with my Emmaus and Knight brothers have also been prayerfully and financially supportive.

I pray every day that other men in my parish join me in this wonderful journey. Work in the ministries was important and rewarding – but this is an awesome experience. The professors are out of this world qualified and inspiring. Our prayer consciences have achieved levels we never thought possible. And we are learning so much more about our faith.

If you know of someone that you feel in your heart will make a good candidate for diaconate formation, have them contact their pastor.  A new class enters this Fall and that only happens once every two years!

2nd year group!Left to right:  Ismar, Luis, Steve, Victor, JC, Dr. Brian, Sister, Jorge, Mesmin, Me, Ernie, Dr. Jose and Enrique.

This is our group along with Sister Margarita.  She has taught at the seminary for 28 years and just announced her retirement.  What a blessing for us to have had her as a professor!

Please pray for us and our families as we continue the discernment process. We will do the same for you!

 

 


One semester done….

December 30, 2014

Like in all good things in life…they go by fast when you are enjoying them! When I was first told the diaconate formation program would take five years, I thought I would never get done. A brother Deacon gave me a major moment of clarity.  This “program” is a life long walk. The first five years are only part of that walk, not an ends to a mean.

I always admired my brother deacons. I do so even more now.  My closest friends tell me that because of my many faults, my five year program will actually take me ten years to complete! Actually, the first year is one of discernment.  Its called the year of aspirancy. After the first two semesters the aspirant applies for formal candidacy.  If approved, the candidacy takes the next three years.  After that, the archbishop has to accept the candidate as an ordinant; this final year gets you prepared for ordination.

My wife has been and will continue to be a partner in this walk.  Throughout this process the archbishop stays in constant contact with my life partner.  We were told from the first step that she is my closest and best advisor.  I have also been blessed by a wonderful spiritual advisor: Father Damian Flanagan.  We also chose a deacon couple to mentor us throughout this process: Deacon and Mrs. Raul Flores.  Deacon Roberto Fleitas and his wife Nancy, continue to be  an inspiration to Maxine and I throughout this process….

I know the Lord will rain blessings on us throughout this process.  I also understand the Evil one will do all possible to keep me from getting closer to my Lord.  Even though there are and will continue to be trials, at the end of the process, the Lord will always prevail.

One of my major goals, that my prayer is focused on, is on bringing some of my Emmaus and Knight brothers to this walk as future deacons.  There are many willing and few are called.  But I am confidant those few called will be part of my wonderful Emmaus and Knight community. I hope my calling can be an inspiration to my brothers and their families to step up their service to the Lord.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me….I once was lost, but now am found; was blind,  but now can see…..Keep my family and me in your prayers….

Your Brother in Christ; Vivat Jesus!