A sure sign that change is afoot in Cuba is the opening of the first Roman Catholic seminary since the 1959 revolution. President Raul Castro was in attendance, as was Archbishop Thomas Wenski and several other priests from Miami. In the wake of the Church’s continued involvement in the release of over fifty political prisoners on the island, last week’s inauguration is a material symbol of the easing tensions between the Cuban government and the Catholic Church.
While Castro’s government never officially severed ties with the Vatican, the expulsion of various priests after the triumph of the revolution led to several decades of tension; the previous seminary was seized by the state and turned into military barracks in 1966. It was only in the 1990s that tensions began to ease, culminating with the 1998 visit of Pope John Paul II. During that visit the Pope blessed the cornerstone of the seminary, which was funded by a variety of international organizations, including the Knights of Columbus. Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega warmly greeted Castro at the inauguration, saying “In the name of the Church, I thank both the former president, as well as current President Raul Castro, who honors us with his presence, for the state’s support of this work.”
The significance of Wenski, Castro, and Ortega together at the Seminary of San Carlos and San Ambrosio, a symbolic trinity of Cubans’ and Cuban-Americans’ negotiations between identity, land, and religion, is not lost on me. For the Catholic Church globally, this opening is a public testimony of the survival of Catholicism in spite of increasing clergy shortages throughout other parts of Latin America. While many are heralding this as the beginning of Church-state relations in Cuba, as the daughter of Cuban exiles I have lived my entire life swinging from joy to disappointment as various events have been labeled “the beginning” of change on the island. Yet, in spite of my cynicism and previous disappointments I must admit that it does appear that not only materially, but also spiritually, a new era for Catholicism in Cuba has begun.