4/19/12 | 434 views
Cause to Rejoice in Two Lands
When Cardinal Dolan announced on Easter Sunday that Father Felix Varela’s cause for canonization had advanced, he confirmed what had been known in Church circles for several weeks since The Vatican’s Congregation for Saints’ Causes had recommended recognizing Father Varela’s heroic Christian virtues on March 14.
It had been expected by many that Pope Benedict XVI would announce Father Varela as Venerable during his visit to Cuba in late March. The advancement did not happen then, but the Holy Father did pay tribute to the Cuban-born priest who later went on to serve the immigrant Church in New York with distinction during the first half of the 19th century.
In his Spanish-language homily at the papal Mass in Revolution Square in Havana March 28, Pope Benedict said he hoped “the moment would soon arrive” in Cuba when “the Church can bring to the fields of knowledge the benefits of the mission which the Lord entrusted to her and which she can never neglect.”
Father Varela’s life, the Holy Father said, offered “a shining example of this commitment.” The Holy Father called Father Varela an “outstanding priest...teacher and educator, an illustrious son of this city of Havana, who has taken his place in Cuban history as the first one who taught his people how to think.”
“Father Varela offers us a path to a true transformation of society: to form virtuous men and women in order to forge a worthy and free nation, for this transformation depends on the spiritual, in as much as ‘there is no authentic fatherland without virtue’ (Varela, Letters to Elpidio, Letter 6, Madrid 1836). Cuba and the world need change, but this will occur only if each one is in a position to seek the truth and chooses the way of love, sowing reconciliation and fraternity.”
The pontiff spoke those words to a congregation that included the communist nation’s president Raul Castro. In rereading the pope’s words, it wasn’t Raul Castro or even Fidel Castro that I was thinking about.
I was there in Revolution Square that day, along with about 20 other pilgrims from the archdiocese and across the United States. My thoughts were with the Cuban people we stood next to. We New Yorkers brought some cardboard fans featuring an image of Father Varela, with wording in Spanish on one side and English on the other. On a hot day, with the sun baking, the fans went quickly, as you might imagine. So did pamphlets about the Rosary and cards from Cardinal Dolan’s consistory that I had been carrying. Hands appeared on all sides, eagerly grabbing up the items as fast as I could pass them out.
Some of the eagerness, I felt, was a reaction to receiving printed materials of any sort, in a land where written communication is largely limited to the Communist party newspaper, Granma. It was also apparent that Cuban people, on this day and throughout the pilgrimage, wanted to forge connections with people from outside the country.
And let me tell you, Father Varela is well-known, even today, in Cuba. Father Arthur Rojas, parochial vicar of St. Joseph’s parish in Yonkers, celebrated Mass in his honor at Immaculate Conception Cathedral in the Old Havana section. It is right next door to the old Seminary of St. Carlos and St. Ambrose (the seminary is now located in another area of Havana), which is now home to the Father Felix Varela Cultural Center. We toured that center and heard a full range of programs for intellectual and entrepreneurial development outlined briefly by a local guide.
At the University of Havana, we visited the Great Hall (Aula Magna), where Father Varela’s mortal remains are entombed. Two recent graduates, answering our questions there, described Father Varela as “the most important person of the first half of the 20th century,” which I understood as recognition of his role in advocating for Cuba’s eventual independence.
As Father Varela is recognized for all the good he did here in New York in the first half of the 19th century, we should all remember and pray for the Cuban Church which may one day see him canonized as its first native saint.
Browse our archive of photos