Catholics in America – Heroic in virtue and ahead of his time

Pope Benedict XVI recently visited Cuba, including a stop at the famous shrine to the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, the island’s patroness under the title of Our Lady of Charity celebrating its 400th anniversary. While the nation has historically had Catholic influences, today it is estimated that only 2-5 percent of the population attends Mass regularly, a statistic lower than some radically de-Christianized pockets of Europe.

Communism, Santeria and secularization have all impacted traditional Catholic practice among Cubans, although studies suggest active involvement in the faith is slowly trending upward. There is undoubtedly something strikingly, pervasively and zealously spiritual about Cuba’s inhabitants and emigrants, which seems to be deeply and intrinsically a part of their Euro-Caribbean blood.

One of my closest friends in Manhattan is Cuban-American. Her father was born in the island’s northern coastal region of Matanzas, although her family is, like many tracing their heritage there, only a few generations removed from European ancestry.  Through her I’ve learned much about Cuban culture, food, cigars and, due to her career and interests, especially politics. A few of us spent a recent Sunday afternoon drinking rum (Bacardi dates to the pre-Revolution era on the island) and discussing the Cuban community’s history and impact on the American election cycle, as well as the recent cause of canonization of expatriate Felix Varela y Morales.

Born in Havana in 1788, Varela was sentenced to death after his ordination to the priesthood for “radical” political views, including Latin American independence and the abolition of slavery.  He sought refuge in the United States, and lived the rest of his life in New York, Philadelphia and Miami, dying in 1853.

Varela was responsible for El Habanero, one of the earliest Spanish-language newspapers in the United States. A cultured thinker, he was fluent not only in journalism and theology (hence a hero!), but music, the arts, literature, history and science. He is today recognized as “venerable,” which means he is a public model of someone heroic in virtue. His work for the rights of immigrants, the underprivileged, and women in society was truly ahead of its time.

There are important distinctions between the many Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking cultures in the world, and most will be unhesitant to vociferously point out these differences to you in conversation; but there is a common thread of commitment to hard work and family that largely defines who they are as a people. The dominant forces of intellectual entitlement and comfortable laziness which define so many in my generation (of which I am by no means exempt), and which have so pervaded the hyper-industrialized West, still encounter bastions of resistance in many of the Latino communities. I am struck by the seriousness with which they almost unanimously take the Gospel mandate “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

In recognition of Varela’s contribution to this population, the U.S. post office created a commemorative stamp with his image on it in 1997, and there exists both the Felix Varela Award for Excellence in American Journalism on Latino Issues and even the Orden Felix Varela, a cultural Cuban achievement award given by Castro’s government agencies.

Today, Varela’s body rests in the Aula Magna of the University of Havana. If he were to be eventually canonized, he’d be the first ever Cuban-born saint.

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.

Categories: Growing in Faith

About Author