“The people in Cuba are grieving; even those who had different views from those of Fidel respect the sorrow. There still is great respect, along with a certain degree of fear. Music is forbidden so is the sale of alcoholic drinks. When night comes everything is wrapped in silence. In churches many faithful have put his name on the list of the deceased for whom prayers are recited every day.” Fr Fully Doragrossa, 53, fidei donum priest of the inter-diocesan mission of Genoa, Savona and Chiavari, Italy, parish priest of Esperanza in the diocese of Santa Clara, thus described Cuban Catholics’ bereavement for the death of Fidel Castro, passed away past November 25. This will be his last week serving as parish priest, after four years of mission. He is in the process of handing over his office to Fr Pietro Pigollo, former Director of the Commission for the Family in the archdiocese of Genoa. Cuba’s government decreed nine days of official mourning, until December 4, when the ashes of Fidel will be laid to rest in the cemetery of the Country’s “founding fathers” in Santiago de Cuba, where the revolution broke out in 1959. “There is a close resemblance with the Catholic novena”, remarked Fr Doragrossa.
The “funeral of the people” began with the placing of the remains of Fidel Castro at the José Martì Memorial, with people standing on line to sign the registers and bid their last farewell to “Lider maximo”. Today his brother Raoul Castro, Cuba’s president, will officiate political commemorations in Plaza de la Revolución, whence will leave a long 900km procession across the island, up to Santiago – “to bring Fidel back home” – that is also the site of the famous Shrine of the Patron Saint of Cuba, the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, visitated by three Popes. “Ex-votos of the mother, a sincere devotee, who prayed for her sons”, are kept in the del Cobre shrine, the priest recalled:
“As far as we know Fidel did not convert on his deathbed, although it is evident that he felt a certain closeness towards the Catholic Church, which never broke diplomatic relations with Cuba.”
“Over the last period Fidel often spoke about death, about eternity – said the missionary – and once the official daily newspaper Granma published a speech on religions and their importance in human thought. Fidel wrote: ‘I know enough about Jesus and next time I will talk about it.’ Now he speaks of this directly with Jesus! In the Masses for the deceased we pray for those who present themselves before God with many good deeds and other less good ones. God is the Judge.”
Amidst Cuban Catholics. Indeed, in Cuba there were no public celebrations like those held in Miami, where Masses were celebrated thanking God “por librar a Cuba de un demonio”. The archbishop of Miami Thomas Wenski said he hopes that for Cuba “will come the time for reconciliation in the truth, accompanied by justice and freedom.” “Fidel Castro is dead – he said -. Now he will be judged by God, who is merciful and fair.” According to the Italian missionary, who visited Miami recently, those who celebrated with “hysterical reactions” are a “loud minority that appeal to the media, but not everyone reacted in that way – the young and old generation alike.” In fact, many Cuban churchgoers, “appreciated Fidel, although not in a fanatic way: they are well aware of the problems” said Fr Doragrossa. “The revolution did bring many good things, but everyone is aware that such good things don’t correspond to the economic development model presented by the government. Many problems linger on. With no doubts those problems are due to the embargo, but not only: Cubans are not stupid, they know. And so does the Party, which for a long time has been talking about a new economic model, because the old one functioned solely via Russian support.”
What will happen next? Thanks to her approach based on diplomacy, dialogue, and small steps, the Church has given a great contribution to Cuba’s openness to the rest of the world, as John Paul II had called for, confirmed by the visits of Benedict XVI and of Pope Francis on September 23-25 2015, until the beginning of the process for normalising relations with the US and the visit of Barack Obama. The détente process now risks being stalled in the light of the election of Donald Trump. Over the past years Cuban bishops obtained the release of 130 political prisoners, greater space on public radio and television networks, along with the possibility of having their own media, even though controlled by the State. However, they continue asking for Catholic schools and greater access to the media. What will happen next? “Major changes have taken place throughout the years – albeit slowly – Fr Doragrossa recalled -. But the pace might be hastened.
It largely depends on the attitude of the Church. If Pope Francis’ approach is followed, there are bound to be no problems. We are nearing a situation whereby the Church will be able to fully carry out her mission, which is already partly true.
It’s important not to insist on the need for space, notably for decisional power, but rather to be able to act freely in order to pave the way for formation and transformation processes across the population that will last in time. The Church already acts freely in Cuba, but the bureaucratic structures and procedures are so complex that like all Cubans also the Church is impeded by related slowdowns.”
Will history absolve Fidel Castro? Paraphrasing the famous words of Fidel Castro, the exiles in Miami, on their website Cubanet, obviously said No: “Despite the merits that his efforts might have, the overall balance is a negative one.” For the parish priest of Esperanza, who in a few days will be leaving his thriving, committed and vital community, “for us History has a name, and that name is the History of Salvation. We hope that God will save him too: we don’t wish Hell on any man. I hope that in the end his Catholic roots may have prompted his yearning to get to know the God that he had rejected in his university studies. There are many things needing to be purified, but he gave a glass of water to the last.”