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Matt Malone, S.J.August 11, 2014

Across the street from the otherwise thoroughly middle-class Havana home of Che Guevara, about an eighth of a mile from the enshrined debris of a downed American U-2 flight, stands the Cristo de La Habana, a 66-foot-high statue of Jesus Christ carved out of 320 tons of marble. Bruised and pockmarked by multiple lightning strikes—the first, ironically enough, on the day Fidel Castro triumphantly entered the capital city—the statue depicts Jesus with one hand near his heart, as if he is about to deliver a New World Sermon on the Mount, which makes sense given the statue’s location. From its base, on the highest point in the city, one enjoys a panoramic view of the capital beyond.

Dedicated on Christmas Day 1959 by the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, the work was meant to confirm the position of Catholicism in Cuba’s national imagination. A mere nine days later, however, Che led his victorious column into the capital that Batista had briskly abandoned. Che’s khaki-clad, rifle-bearing band then paid a visit to the new statute and even snapped a few selfies. If the thought ever occurred to them, the largely atheistic rebels knew better than to tear it down: that would have alienated the religious sensibilities of a huge swath of Cubans. So the statue remains where it was unveiled some 55 years ago.

The statue also overlooks the entrance to the port of Havana, one of the busiest intersections in Cuban military history, the site of several clashes between the Old World and the new and eventually the New World and the new. I stood on this bluff for the second time in my life last month during a brief visit to Cuba to attend events surrounding the 50th anniversary of the priestly ordination of the Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino. Cardinal Ortega’s long life at the dangerous intersection of the church and Cuban politics is aptly described by the title of his best known pastoral letter: “El Amor Todo Lo Espera” (“Love Endures All Things”).

My presence at what amounted to a three-day celebration of the Cuban Church made a lot of sense. America is committed to providing opinion and analysis about news and events at the intersection of the church and the world, the kinds of places in which Cardinal Ortega and his people have labored so courageously. The church and the world, of course, mean much more than the United States, especially for Catholics, who count ourselves in the company of one billion people on five continents. To that end America is making a major investment in our international coverage at a time when the pace of global change has picked up considerably. Take a look at the cover of this issue: a shrinking world and a changing Scotland will proffer more images like that one. That kind of barrier breaking is welcome and vitally needed, of course—even if, in my judgment, Scottish independence is ultimately a fool’s errand.

In the end, we know, there is only one path to the true peace we seek; and it is not an ideology or nationalism of any kind, but rather a person for whom love, forgiveness and justice are the only standards of human action. Cardinal Ortega made a similar point in his homily at the closing liturgy. He reminded his people that the day was not about him, nor even about them, but that the day belonged to the Lord. They got it. At the end of the liturgy, as we recessed into the fierce August sun, I caught a quick glimpse of the Cristo de la Habana just as the music of a German-born British subject, G. F. Handel, rose from a thousand Latin voices, a powerful reminder to the church and the world that the alabaster figure overlooking their city represents the true “Lord of lords” and “King of kings. And he shall reign forever and ever.”

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Enrique I. Alonso
9 years 3 months ago
"...love, forgiveness and justice are the only standards of human action..." In the end these are just abstract terms, not exiles. Any idea about whatever happened to those?
Enrique I. Alonso
9 years 3 months ago
One or more nerves jumped in me when I began reading this report on Cuba, and perhaps that accounts for my terse comment a few days ago. Were I not a Cuban exile, my nerves would almost certainly not have jumped. So please excuse the hasty conclusions. However, I saw "Che" mentioned, rather than Che Guevara, suggesting myth and not reality. And then the "victory" and his "atheism" was mentioned, but not his murders. There is a difference of course. I don't just mean war victims he killed in self defense, or a captive he reportedly executed in cold blood. Guevara, a medical doctor, who had never even lived in Cuba prior to his alliance with Castro, was nevertheless placed in charge of dispatching justice to Cuban captives at La Cabaña. Prisoners were brought in daily, appointed a public defender, and executed after trial. One public defender who traveled nightly to La Cabaña, told me how prisoners were introduced to him only moments before their trial, convicted and briskly executed, even the same day. He said he won only one case, but that the prisoner was executed anyhow, after an appeal. The brief piece also seemed to characterize Cuba's politics as a conflict between two tyrants, Batista and Castro. Well, Castro has been there for 55 years, and Batista, after his 1952 coup for 7, and 4 more after a legitimate constitutional election in 1940. And Batista also acted independently of the presidency after the sergeant's revolt in the 1930's, having accepted an invitation to meet with the US prsident. So there is a basis behind that protrayal, But there was also a different Cuba before, in between, and apart from both of them; a Cuba that was repeatedly aborted. For example, there were periods when presidents could simply be voted out. Batista ended that in 1952 with almost immediate US support. At the present time, if one were to caricature Cuba, it would be truer to paint it as to two, three, four, or even five populations. Its population in 1959 did not reach 6 million; that is its first. But over three million have lived in exile since 1959; its second. Then there are the exiles' descendants in the diaspora, mainly the US; its third. And very recently there are also the new emigrés, a portion of who have apparently "emmigrated" with the blessings of the murderous regime, for some travel back and forth, even between homes. These are the fourth and fifth, depending on their allegiances. That's the problem Cubans face. And so the author's main point is the answer. For the author made a transcending point. He is right that "there is only one path to the true peace we seek; and it is not an ideology or nationalism of any kind, but rather a person for whom love, forgiveness and justice are the only standards of human action." And in my indignation and anger overlooked what he was trying to say, his main point, even as I quoted it. I am sorry about that. For surely he was referring to someone who is completely real and concrete, that is, to our Lord, Jesus Christ. And love, forgiveness and justice are not abstractions in him, but rather are his essence and Being, flowing from Him, even as they remain abstractions in varying degrees in those who try to follow Him, by trying to love their enemies. Our enemies are not excluded from His love. That said, it is marvelous to participate in mass celebrated by priests visiting from Cuba.
Matthew Malone
9 years 3 months ago
Mr. Alonso: Many thanks for your observations and for your honest reappraisal of your initial reaction to my comments. I, too, am often too quick to judge, based on preconceived notions and my own limited experiences. As a human being, I probably won't ever stop doing that completely, but I can at least do what you have done: be honest and open about my limitations. Thank you. I can't imagine anyone who needs that reminder more than I do.

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