The Curious Case of Catholicism in Cuba

Story and Video by Janelle Clausen
Audio Story by Emily Benson

La Habana Christ overlooks Havana. Photo by Abby Del Vecchio.

Havana, Cuba — Cristo de La Habana, a 20-meter tall marble masterpiece of Jesus Christ, overlooks the city from La Cabana Hill. His empty eyes see all of Havana and all of Havana can see him. It was completed in 1958, just before the Cuban Revolution in 1959.

The Cristo de La Habana symbolizes the persistence of Catholicism among Cubans. Even though the Revolution created an officially atheist state (until the 1990s), it remained a nation of believers, church leaders say.

“Religious faith has never been lost in Cuba,” said Father Gilbert Walker, a missionary and Vincentian priest at the La Merced Church in Old Havana. “It assumed different forms.”

Yet while faith never truly disappeared, many Cubans said that Pope Francis, in his visit last year, made it seem they gained something that they had indeed lost.

Above: Outside La Merced Church, colorful group of students paraded through the streets to celebrate “Three Kings Day.” To Cubans, it’s a reminder of how one can now openly practice faith– thanks in part to the Pope.

“The Pope has always been a way for us to live the ways of Christ,” said Gustavo Luis Veitia Sierra, 21, a seminarian in Havana training to become a priest. That connection with the pontiff is a thread that bonds countless Cubans, Walker said.

The priest asserted that Pope Francis, as the first Latin American Pope, had a unique understanding of Cuba.

“It felt like a relative was coming to visit,” he said.

However, Walker said that the visit of an earlier pontiff, that of Pope John Paul II in 1998, was perhaps more important.

“He was the first to come and I don’t think anybody has drawn the crowds that John Paul II has here,” Walker said, when asked to compare the visits of John Paul II and Francis. “He was certainly the rock star.”

Spain brought Christianity to Cuba more than half a millennium when it was a developing colony. Over time, the Catholic Church became institutionalized and under the post-1960 Community regime developed strong social sectors, notably healthcare and education. The open practice of religion subsided during the Post-Revolution period, in other words, from the 1960s through 1990. But church celebrations, notably those associated with Christmas, have re-blossomed over the past two decades.

A 2015 Univision/Fusion Cuba poll says that 27 percent of all adults in Cuba are Catholic, 13 percent practice Santeria, and 44 percent aren’t religious. In Western Cuba, where Havana is located, 39 percent of people are Catholic versus 38 percent saying they’re non-religious.

“Since the beginning, I had this feeling [of wanting] to be close to God,” Sierra, 21, said. The importance of faith was instilled in him growing up, he said, and the Church has helped him remain connected to his deep family traditions.

“It didn’t have to be in secret,” he said, regarding the practice of religion during the Post Revolution years.

But religious identity in Cuba isn’t always so cookie cutter.

Photo by Janelle Clausen.

Santeria, or “Way of the Saints,” is an Afro-Caribbean religion that mixes Yoruba beliefs with Roman Catholic traditions. It arrived in Cuba via the Spanish slave trade, in which slaves were forcibly baptized into a faith but not evangelized, Walker explained. But overtime the new converts found characteristics in saints that were deemed to be akin to their orichas– or demigods.

“There’s been a blending in the minds of some folks between Catholic faith and Yoruba belief. Santeria is a part of that syncretic process,” Walker said. “There are other Afro-Cuban belief systems as well.”

Roughly 60 percent of Cubans have been baptized, according to Walker, but not all of them are exclusively Catholic. Santeria practitioners are also baptized, initially, as Catholics, he said.

“Here in the Caribbean, the lines are blurred,” Walker added. “You would find people who would say ‘Oh I’m Santerro, and I’m also a Catholic.’”

At La Merced, there are 18 to 20 baptisms, twice a month, so that there are a maximum of 40 baptisms total a month. It is unclear what percentage of them are strictly done for Catholics, as opposed to those who intend to practice Santeria.

There are Catholic churches through Havana and throughout the country. “We try to encourage people to baptize in their home community, because that’s where the children will actually grow up in the faith if they do grow up in the faith,” Walker said. “But this (La Merced) is a popular church for lots of reasons, so we try to respect that and offer the sacrament.”

Yoan (pronounced Yo-Ahn) , 42, who only gave his first name, came to Mass at La Merced, eager to confess his sins. Faith for him comes first. In fact, the former chemical engineer now works in tourism, partially because it allows him a schedule that is more conducive to his Sunday Mass attendance quota.

“Fifty-two times minimum,” he laughed.

Yoan said that many Santeria believers come to this church. He said some in the church actually sell tickets for their assigned positions in pre-baptism sessions. But he says he disapproves of that.

“Sacraments are sacraments,” he said. “They cannot be bought, and they can’t be sold.”

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