Keeler is in Cuba today as papal visit nears Cardinal to offer tips to clergy preparing for historic event

December 30, 1997|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

In what he called "a sign of solidarity" with a struggling church, Cardinal William H. Keeler leaves this morning for Cuba, where he will celebrate New Year's Day Mass in Havana and visit with Roman Catholic officials.

Keeler noted that Pope John Paul II visited the United States twice while the Baltimore prelate was president of the National Council of Catholic Bishops in the early 1990s. "I hope that any counsel I can give with respect to preparing for the papal visit will be helpful," Keeler said. "They'll be looking perhaps for technical pointers."

Going to the island about three weeks before Pope John Paul's historic visit next month, Keeler will spend four days in Cuba, bringing gifts from the Archdiocese of Baltimore of antibiotics, vitamins and cardboard visors emblazoned with "Viva el Papa" for the pope's visit.

Keeler, who is traveling with a delegation from Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, was invited by Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana. Ortega visited Baltimore this fall and stayed in the cardinal's Charles Street residence near the Basilica of the Assumption.

In an interview before he departed, Keeler called the trip "a sign of solidarity" with the Cuban church, which has long suffered persecution under the Communist regime of Fidel Castro.

"I know they welcome any sign of public encouragement," Keeler said. "It will also be a chance to become a little more educated about the situation that they face."

Keeler is scheduled to leave Baltimore this morning and will arrive midafternoon in Havana, where he is scheduled to meet with Ortega. Tomorrow morning, he will drive about 100 miles west to the city of Pinar del Rio, in the heart of Cuba's tobacco-growing region.

He is to celebrate New Year's Mass at midnight with Bishop Jose Siro Gonzalez of Pinar del Rio. Siro is head of the Cuban branch of Caritas, the Catholic relief agency, which will distribute the medicine and vitamins brought by the Baltimore delegation. Siro visited Baltimore about a year and a half ago and invited Keeler to visit his diocese in Cuba.

On New Year's Day, Keeler will return to Havana, where he will celebrate Mass with Ortega at 5 p.m. in the Havana Cathedral.

Keeler and Ortega have long-established ties. They were elevated together as cardinals in a November 1994 ceremony in Rome by Pope John Paul.

"Cardinal Ortega was made a cardinal with me, and we are near to each other in seniority as cardinals," Keeler said. During meetings and ceremonies in Rome, cardinals and bishops are seated in order of seniority. During the recently completed Synod on the Americas, Keeler and Ortega sat side by side. "So I had the opportunity for a number of visits with him," he said.

Ortega has also been a frequent visitor to the United States. "During my service as vice president and president of our conference of bishops, we met with him on a regular basis," Keeler said. "He came to the United States at least once a year so he kept us abreast of what was transpiring."

Keeler said he expects to find a church that has struggled under communism, but also one that is recently seeing signs of hope and a relaxing of the restrictions on the practice of religion. Once officially atheist, Cuba began to allow Catholics and other people of faith to join the Communist Party in 1991.

"It's been a very, very difficult time under the Castro years," Keeler said. He noted that when he was a bishop in Harrisburg, Pa., during the 1980 Mariel boat lift, many of the refugees stayed temporarily in his diocese.

"We discovered most of the people had never been to Mass, had never been to church, didn't know basics of faith," Keeler said. "When you live in a society where religion can't be mentioned in the schools, when people had to work on Christmas Day, that kind of thing, it was a total exclusion [of religion] from the public life of the nation."

But Keeler said that is slowly changing. "What has occurred in recent years, following the collapse of communism in Eastern and Central Europe, had been a rediscovery of the church by young people," he said. "Castro relaxed some years ago some prohibitions against instructing youth. There was just sort of a quiet relaxation. And many started coming to church, being instructed -- by many I'm talking about some thousands, not hundreds of thousands, but many thousands -- and this began to give the church leadership a new sense of hope."

Keeler said he believes the pope's visit to Cuba, scheduled for Jan. 21-25, will have a significant, lasting impact on Cuba, and may lead to increased personal freedom. But he doesn't expect it will have the same effect as Pope John Paul's visit to Poland in 1979, which many credit for helping bring down the Communist regime in that country.

"I feel it's not the same," he said. "In Poland, the church was able to keep alive and strong in ways that just have not been possible in Cuba, because they have had so few clergy and so little opportunity for coming together for instruction and for worship."

Pub Date: 12/30/97

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