By Patricia Zapor, Catholic News Service
(CNS) -- The 52 seminarians at San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary outside of
Havana have a daunting task ahead of them, but a great deal of enthusiasm for
how to tackle it.
will join only about 300 priests in the whole country -- one priest per every
19,000 Catholics -- the widest ratio in Latin America and the Caribbean. But
they will step into ministry at a time when the Catholic Church is regaining
ground lost in the early days of the Cuban revolution, expanding services and
becoming a more public presence in society.
high-profile Catholic events are part of what is inspiring the seminarians.
Pope Benedict XVI will visit Cuba March 26-28, just the second visit of a pope
to the country. And he's coming as a pilgrim to mark the 400th anniversary of
the country's patroness, Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre -- a celebration that
already was a nationwide sensation before the pope's visit was announced.
Fdez Delgado, a theology student and a native of Havana, told Catholic News
Service in February that the seminarians are well aware of the huge jobs facing
them as priests.
are shortages of priests everywhere, but there is really a shortage in Cuba,"
Fdez said. "Some dioceses have just 30 priests in the whole diocese. It's been
an occasion for the laity to be more involved, but we still need priests for
Torres Perez, another theology student, said part of the responsibility facing
him and the other seminarians is "to be a means of unity" for Cubans and "to
the role for priests "not only here in our country, but everywhere," he added.
also looks beyond Cuba's borders.
the greatest challenge is to be the means of peace between northern Cubans
(meaning those living in the United States) and those here," he said. "There is
50 years' worth of hatred and resentment, and we need to be the means of
Cuba, there also needs to be healing, he added.
is dissent between some who are in favor of the government and others who want
change," Fdez noted. "It is hard to keep unity."
students said they have been energized by the pilgrimage tour of a statue of La
Caridad, as the patroness is affectionately called.
opened the door for our hearts and for our faith," said Torres. "It was an
amazing event for me and for our country."
equally enthused: "I didn't know so many Cubans had such a love for the Virgin.
Spiritual need, that was what brought them out."
replica statue toured the country in 2011, thousands of people turned out at
each stop for processions, Masses and prayer services, far exceeding even the
most optimistic expectations of the organizers.
amazing to me," said Torres. "Our people need hope and happiness and the Virgin
gives that. The pope's visit will be like a surge of hope for all our people."
Jose Miguel Gonzalez Martin, the Spanish rector of the seminary who also serves
as pastor of Holy Spirit Parish in Havana, is one of more than 150 foreign
priests who make up that total of 300. Hundreds of Cuba's priests fled or were
forced into exile after Fidel Castro rose to power in 1959. Then 30 years of
official state atheism -- dropped in 1992 -- were an effective dampener on
active involvement in religion.
Gonzalez said that in his 12 years in Cuba, he has seen the church become able
to work more freely, "without fear," in its evangelization efforts. After
decades of overt oppression in an officially atheist state, there are more
openings for the church's social mission, in particular, he said.
shortage of priests is one of the hardest challenges facing the church, he
said. San Carlos and San Ambrosio operates at only about half its
100-seminarian capacity. Of the 11 dioceses in Cuba, one has no seminarians in
Havana. The Archdiocese of Santiago de Cuba, in the far eastern part of the
country, and the Archdiocese of Camaguey each have seminaries with a handful of
Carlos and San Ambrosio opened at its current location in 2011. The completion
of the first new church building since the 1950s was marked by a November 2010
inauguration ceremony attended by Castro and bishops from around the region,
including Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski.
previous seminary property in Havana was taken over by the state in 1966 and
turned over for military use. San Carlos and San Ambrosio then moved into a
colonial-era church building in Old Havana that proved to be too small for the
purposes. That building is undergoing renovation and will be used as a cultural
center, with a wide variety of services open to Catholics and non-Catholics
Gonzalez said the seminary's new location on the outskirts of Havana has its
advantages -- a more tranquil setting, modern buildings, plenty of space -- and
disadvantages -- infrequent bus service into the city where seminarians serve
seminarians, Father Gonzalez draws hope from the recent changes in openness for
not all that we want," but the two years of preparations for the anniversary of
La Caridad have marked a turning point for the church, he said.