This week we saw the passing of Ted Kennedy. I want to share with you a statement we released on his passing Wednesday:
“Today we mourn the passing of Senator Edward M. Kennedy and we extend our heartfelt prayers and sincere condolences to his wife Victoria and their children, Kara, Edward, Patrick, Curran and Caroline. Senator Kennedy was blessed with a dedicated and loving family who stood by his side, particularly during the past year as he faced his illness with courage, dignity and strength.
We join with his colleagues in Congress and the people of Massachusetts in reflecting on his life and his commitment to public service. For nearly half a century, Senator Kennedy was often a champion for the poor, the less fortunate and those seeking a better life. Across Massachusetts and the nation, his legacy will be carried on through the lives of those he served.
We pray for the repose of his soul and that his family finds comfort and consolation in this difficult time.”
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Last week, I traveled to Cuba with a delegation sent by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Father Andrew Small, the secretary for Latin America who administers the annual collection to help projects in the churches in that part of the world, was in charge of this delegation.
The delegation was made up of Bishop Oscar Cantú, the Auxiliary Bishop of San Antonio; Bishop Thomas Wenski, who is the chairperson of the bishop’s Migration and International Policy Committee; and I as a member of the committee on Latin America. My secretary, Father Jonathan Gaspar also accompanied us as staff.
We were there to give support to the local bishops and to become acquainted first-hand with how the aid we sent after last year’s three hurricanes and two tropical storms is being used. We also sought to better understand what their future needs are.
We had meetings with the bishops, lay leaders and the staff from Caritas Cubana, the Church organization in Cuba which helps the sick and the elderly and also provides emergency relief services.
I want to mention that here in Boston there is an organization, The Friends of Caritas Cubana, that supports their efforts. Each year there is a fundraiser at the home of Consuelo Isaacson, and usually a member of Caritas or one of the Cuban bishops will attend.
While in Havana we also met with the ambassador to the Order of Malta. The order of Malta has diplomatic relations with 60 countries, including Cuba. The Order is involved in programs to help the elderly and to provide medicine and food for people there.
There is a large group of Cuban members of the Order in Miami, but they actually have an ambassador in Cuba itself, a Polish gentleman named Przemyslaw Häuser. He invited us one night for dinner at his embassy, and we had some very interesting discussions. He was a very close friend of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Stanislaus Dziwisz, Pope John Paul II’s secretary for many, many years. In Poland, he was a filmmaker who made films about the Vatican and about John Paul II.
The last time I visited Cuba was when I was visitator to the seminaries. The present seminary for Havana is in the old archbishop’s palace, which was connected to the cathedral and a very inadequate facility for a seminary. There are 60-70 people camped out in this old episcopal residence that is not in the best shape. I was able to visit the site of the new seminary, which will hopefully be opened next year. That project was begun with donations from a benefactor here in Boston.
Monday night we toured Havana. It was interesting to see how the government has begun to fix up the old city, which is magnificent. Many people, I am sure, have seen the old city in San Juan, Puerto Rico and how beautiful that is. This is something comparable but much larger, with many more plazas and buildings.
One of the buildings that we visited was the Franciscan church that Father Junípero Serra stayed at on his way to found the missions in California. There is also a plaza and a statue of Our Lady of Pilar, Where the first Mass in the island was celebrated.
Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre, the Patroness of Cuba
In restoring the old city, the government is looking to prepare for a jump in the tourist industry. Right now, the largest group of people visiting Cuba are from Canada. The second largest group are Cuban Americans since the government has opened up somewhat and is allowing Americans to visit their relatives there. It is very difficult for other Americans to visit Cuba, and it requires a special license from the State Department.
We had interesting meetings with representatives of the government. We discussed how relations between our two countries might improve. We talked about people’s attitudes toward the embargo.
We also spoke about the issue of political prisoners. I raised the question of Dr. Oscar Biscet who has been imprisoned and sentenced to many years, ostensibly because of his opposition to abortion in Cuba.
For their part, the Cuban government wanted to make it known they are upset with the fact that some of the wives of five Cubans who were imprisoned in the U.S. in 2001 have not been given visas to visit their husbands.
So, we had substantial discussions about difficult topics but, all in all, I think that there has been some movement.
We visited the head of the U.S. Interests Section, Jonathan Farrar — a very fine Catholic and career diplomat. It was interesting to learn, though, that he cannot leave Havana and travel to the rest of the country in the same way that the Cuban Interests Section cannot leave Washington. We spoke about things like that that could be changed as gestures of good will.
With Jonathan Farrar
Part of the original memorial to the sinking of the USS Maine
Of course, the best way to describe the atmosphere in Cuba is one of uncertainty. People are concerned and anxious and do not know what the future is going to bring.
There have been attempts on the part of the U.S. government to lower the rhetoric in U.S.-Cuba relations. Meanwhile, the very uncomplimentary signs that used to hang in front of the U.S. Interests Section were recently ordered taken down by the Cuban government. These are both good signs of progress.
Obviously, the U.S. bishops and the Holy See have urged the lifting of the embargo many years ago. And we talked about the help that is given to the Cuban Church by the Catholics in the United States and our gratitude for that. The Catholics in Boston are really the most generous in support of these missions, which may have been one of the reasons I was asked to be part of this delegation.
I have been going to Cuba for the last 25 years at different intervals, and each time I have seen progress. Certainly, the watershed moment was the Holy Father’s visit. In fact, when I went back and visited the seminaries, 90 percent of the seminarians were converts, and they attributed their conversion to the Holy Father’s visit. The number of practicing Catholics is very limited. One of the things I raised with the government was the need for the Church to be able to build new churches in areas that have been developed since the time of the revolution where there are no places of worship.
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On Sunday, I had Mass for the Congolese community at St. Mary Parish in Lynn. Msgr. Paul Garrity accompanied us. We were so impressed by the college-aged men who served the Mass and the young women who formed the choir. The Mass was two hours and fifteen minutes in great part because of the singing. The whole service was very celebratory and a joy-filled expression of the Eucharist. I am very grateful to Jackie Kalonji who is the coordinator of that community.
They also had a wonderful meal afterwards and they gave me a beautiful statue of Our Lady made out of green stone from the Congo called malachite.
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This week we had an off-site retreat for our cabinet members to have an opportunity to plan and examine our priorities for the archdiocese. The question of evangelization was very central to our conversations as well. It was a very helpful session. We are so blessed to have such talented people on our cabinet.
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Yesterday we honored Sister Clare Bertero, the director of Religious Education, for her many decades of service that are so deeply appreciated.
We were delighted to see the outpouring of affection and regard for her, not only from the people of our archdiocese but also from DREs from other dioceses throughout New England who came to thank her and to celebrate this milestone in her life.
She will be greatly missed and we wish her well.