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March 23, 2001 Issue
Local News

Despite papal visit, Cubans still avoid church

It's not against the law anymore, but people continue old habits

By Peter Geniesse

HAVANA, CUBA - Every weekend, thousands pour into a gracious cobblestone plaza crowned by a magnificent 18th century Spanish church. It's officially named the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception. Some call it the Cathedral of Colon, for Christopher Columbus whose remains were once interred there. It has served as the see of the Catholic Church in Cuba since 1748.

Today, however, it serves mostly as a baroque backdrop for folklore, and for musical and dance troupes on center stage in front of the ornate, closed church doors. No tourist would think of bypassing Cathedral Square. After all, Ernest Hemingway's favorite watering hole is just around the corner. But few ever enter the church. Cubans don't either.

A Saturday evening Mass, overpowered by salsa music in the square, draws perhaps 50 people, most of them children corralled by a half-dozen women. The lone Sunday Mass at 10:30 a.m. has lots of empty pews.

Almost no one goes to church anymore. It's allowed; people just aren't interested.

Forty-two years after Fidel Castro's revolution ushered in communism and official atheism, religion has become irrelevant.

Three years after Pope John Paul delivered a historic address to 500,000 people in Havana's Plaza of the Revolution, there's no evident, residual religious effect.

Ten years after Castro said mea culpa for Cuba's mistreatment of Christians, and even offered membership in the Communist Party to believers after the Soviet Union left, there's no lingering Christian fervor.

Cuba, like other Latin American nations, was predominantly Catholic ever since Spanish conquistadors left their mark. But, unlike other Latin American countries - notably Mexico with its Our Lady of Guadalupe devotion - Catholicism never became a peasant religion. Rather, it was allied with the urban rich and ruling classes.

When Castro's revolution made its way to Havana on New Year's Day 1959, the Catholic Church and its bishops found themselves on the wrong side. Wealthy Catholics fled to Miami, followed by their mostly foreign priests. Cuba never banned religious activities. It neglected them, and they went away.

In 1986, Castro, a baptized Catholic who was taught by Jesuits and comforted by nuns during his prison stays, got religion. He visited Nicaragua and met with Catholic priests who were dedicated to both the poor and the Sandinista government. He then agreed to an interview with Frei Betto, a liberation theologian priest from Brazil.

When Betto's book, Fidel and Religion, came out, it became an all-time best-seller - 500,000 copies in Cuba. There was an immediate resurgence in religion. Some 20,000 Catholics were baptized that year, three times the previous year.

Castro sanctioned religion, at least the Christian revolutionary kind, and Cubans flocked to church. But they didn't stay long. It was a curiosity. Most families hadn't engendered a tradition of faith. Grandmothers didn't have shrines in their homes.

While Spanish names for deities and saints abound throughout the country, there's little devotion outside the crumbling urban churches. There's no new religious art or crafts in the market, no one wears decorative crosses or piously signs himself as he passes in front of a church.

Many of those two-century-old churches, especially in Havana, have been turned into museums. San Francisco, in a plaza just a couple of blocks from the cathedral, has been spruced up to host concerts and lectures. Its altars and statues and religious paintings remain, but its museum is devoted to anti-religious artifacts.

While Christianity seems to be lagging in the transitional "Special Period" Cuba's now going through, Santeria, a saint-cult worship entrenched in the Cuban culture for more than 300 years, is flourishing. Santeria is a fusion of Catholicism and African tribal religion that traces its origin to the slave era. Most homes are void of crucifixes and other Christian symbols, but many display statues of Santeria gods along with a glass of water to appease the spirits of the dead.

Havana's world-class cemetery, a massive layout of "pious excesses," the guide said, gives an inkling of Cuban spirituality, past and present.

There are more than 500 marble chapels with crosses and statues, and angel-guarded mausoleums to assure immortality for the wealthy. There also are elaborate gravestones for a master and his dog, a gambler and a womanizer, and countless war heroes, as well as corrupt politicians.

The most visited grave is that of "The Miraculous One." Legend says a young woman died during childbirth and was buried with her still-born child at her feet. When her sarcophagus was later opened, the baby was found cradled in her arms.

Women carrying flowers and teddy bears have worn a path to her grave site where they pay homage by knocking three times on her tombstone before requesting a favor. Many are childless and pray for a pregnancy.

Most Cubans can abide that kind of spirituality. Many will admit that they're believers, but say their families - even their grandparents - would never think of entering a church.

"We believe in higher beings," one young man said. "But we're not fanatics about it."

Editor's note: Geniesse, a Green Bay native and a Neenah resident, recently spent a week in Cuba traveling and interviewing people affected by the country's "Special Period." He is a former assistant editor of the Green Bay Register (now The Compass) and was Sunday editor of The Appleton Post-Crescent. In 1988, he made a two-week fact-finding tour of Cuba and wrote extensively of his experiences during the end of the Soviet era.

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