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Cuba softens stance toward Catholic Church

HAVANA – Cuba's government took a significant step toward improving relations with the Roman Catholic Church this past weekend. President Raul Castro attended mass with the island's Catholic hierarchy and thousands of faithful to beatify a 19th century Cuban friar known as the "father of the poor."

For months leading up to the beatification of Friar Jose Olallo Valdes, the Cuban press – which normally ignores religious news – published half a dozen stories depicting his life.

Image: Cuba's President Raul Castro
Cuba's President Raul Castro, right, greets Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins during the beatification ceremony for Friar Jose Olallo Valdeslallo Valdes on Nov. 29. 

At the same time, no one interfered with the church as it put up posters with Olallo's portrait across the island.

Those events along with President Castro's surprise attendance Saturday at Camaguey's Church of the Virgin of Charity are being seen as positive signs of the growing rapprochement between Cuba's communist government and the Catholic Church.

Miracle man?

Olallo lived from 1820 to 1889 when Cuba was a Spanish colony and dedicated his life to caring for the poor and sick in the central city of Camaguey. A member of the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God, Olallo helped the sick during an 1835 cholera epidemic and also tended to the wounded during Cuba's first war of independence (1868-1878) against Spain. His presence defied Spanish orders at the time that barred certain religious clergy from ministering in Cuba.

The Cuban Roman Catholic Church started Olallo's beatification in 1989, on the 100th anniversary of his death. According to Roman Catholic doctrine, this is Olallo's final step before canonization, when he will officially be recognized as a saint.

Cubans pray to the humble monk to help heal the sick. He is credited with the miraculous healing of a 3-year-old child suffering from an inoperable stomach tumor who recovered after her parents appealed to him in prayer for help.

Earlier this year, Pope Benedict XVI certified the miracle ascribed to Olallo after the family gave sworn testimony of their prayers and the child's doctors confirmed that the tumor disappeared with no lingering effects.

Raul Castro front row seat at ceremony

The ceremony, which took place some 300 miles east of Havana and broadcast on Cuban state television and radio, showed President Castro seated in the front row of the three-hour mass.

Cardinal Jose Saraiva, the Vatican envoy who presided over the ceremony, gave a sermon that paradoxically reflected some of the same ideals professed by the Cuban regime.

"In the face of a materialist culture that we see imposing itself everywhere and that pushes aside the weak and the poor, we learn from Olallo the virtues of the wisdom of God and how to love thy neighbor universally," said Saraiva.

The ceremony included a procession of thousands that extended for over a mile, carrying the monk's remains in a golden urn.

At the close, Castro personally greeted the Vatican emissary along with the Papal Nuncio Luigi Bonazzi, Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega and some two dozen more Cuban and foreign clergy.

The event is being seen as a landmark moment for Cuba's Catholic Church, whose pastoral work has been curtailed for almost half a century as a result of the friction with the island's atheist government.

Church activity restricted

Shortly after the Castro brothers came to power in 1959, the government expelled 136 priests and nationalized 350 parochial schools. All church activity was restricted to church property and community projects shut down.

While the church was never officially banned, it was widely frowned upon. Churchgoers were prohibited from joining the Communist Party – the power that controlled jobs, housing and many advantages in Cuban society. In the 1970s and 1980s, rank-and-file Catholics commonly complained about the discrimination they faced when seeking employment or college admission.

According to Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega "the tension started to diminish" in the 1980s with "an evolution on the part of the government."

But it wasn't until the 1990s when icy relations between the church and state began a real thaw.

In the early part of the decade the government abolished all references to atheism in its official documents and allowed religious believers to join the ruling Communist Party. Relations warmed even further when Pope John Paul II visited the island in 1998.

Then-president Fidel Castro met with the pope various times during his four-day visit, allowed local church leaders to mobilize their congregations to attend the papal events and even allowed the pope's mass to be broadcast over national TV and radio.

Pushing for fuller freedom

Since then, the Catholic Church has continued to press for fuller religious freedom. For instance, the church would like the right to bring in more missionaries and perform works of charity without first seeking government approval. It would also like to open its own schools and have a voice in the state-controlled media.

Last spring, Pope Benedict praised Cuban Church leaders during a meeting at the Vatican to discuss the status of their dioceses. The many "difficulties and limitations" placed on the Catholic Church in Cuba, Benedict said, have not stopped it from growing and reaching out to help the sick and the poor.

That may be truer today than ever.

After Cuba was hit by three hurricanes this season, the church and the government put differences aside and began working to aid storm victims. In an unprecedented partnership, the two institutions have been handing out food, medicines and roofing material to the half a million people left homeless. That cooperation is seen as another step forward in further improving church state relations.