Father Guillermo Rodriguez, who had close encounters with Cuban revolutionaries, celebrates 60 years as a priest
It’s a fault he has studiously avoided all his life, particularly in the 60 years he’s been a priest.
At age 86, he’s still making the most of his time, getting up when many people are just going to bed, producing fine works of art, serving as a chaplain and carrying out spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
And, when prompted by reporters and others who are curious, he’s happy to review his life and times and give a glimpse into how his life has reflected the tumultuous history of the Western Hemisphere in the past century.
Father Rodriguez will celebrate the 60th anniversary of his priestly ordination on Sunday, July 17, at St. Brendan the Navigator Church in San Francisco. He won’t have far to go: he lives right across the street, in a house he purchased several years ago with money he made selling some of his artwork. Some of the tapestries he’s made hang in St. Brendan’s, including the Last Supper, which took him six years of diligent work to complete.
He said the homily he preaches that morning will likely be his last. Following the seminary training he received in Spain, which emphasized that “you don’t improvise in the pulpit,” he has always written out his sermons and delivered them from memory.
In recent years, however, he has found that the “extraordinary memory” with which he was blessed is failing, so he stopped preaching about three years ago. For the anniversary Mass, though, he wrote a six-minute sermon. “It’s been a hell of a job to memorize it, but I did,” he said.
Born in Cuba of Spanish parents, Guillermo Rodriguez was in a class of 45 seminarians. By the time he was ordained in 1956, new native priests had become such a rarity on the Caribbean island that his ordination—performed by the papal nuncio in Cuba—attracted a lot of local media attention.
At the same time there was a revolution brewing against the government of Fulgencio Batista, and since Father Rodriguez had some medical training in his background (though he never completed his MD degree) he was able to help the rebels. Che Guevara was active near his parish in the Escambray Mountains.
“I helped the underground against Batista—I thought he was a tyrant, a murderer,” Father Rodriguez said in an interview this week. “He had to be eliminated one way or another.”
The young priest was not a communist or a sympathizer, but no one knew that Fidel Castro was a communist at that point either. After Castro came to power and declared his belief in communism, Father Rodriguez became more outspoken against the ideology. In fact, through a parishioner who was close to the new government, Castro offered the young priest the position of Minister of Propaganda. He turned it down.
The government issued an arrest warrant for the outspoken cleric. Things looked grim, but a military officer in the parish remembered the help the young priest had provided, so he facilitated his escape.
Father Rodriguez landed in Miami in 1960, not knowing English. He communicated with other priests in Latin while picking up the language of his new homeland. Months later, he had what he considers a second escape, when he was recruited by Cuban exiles as a chaplain for what would come to be known as the Bay of Pigs invasion. He was ready to leave for Guatemala, where the revolt against Castro was being organized, but the invasion happened before he was able to get on a plane. If Father Rodriguez had gone, it’s very possible he could have been a victim of the “carnage,” as he put it, the invading forces suffered in the failed attempt.
Eventually, the priest settled in San Francisco, serving along the way in South Carolina and San Jose, California. Harking back to his medical training, he has often served in hospital chaplaincy. He also dabbled in painting, but one day he was inspired by an interview with former pro football player Rosey Grier, who was into needlepoint. “I thought, ‘If I can paint (with paints), I can paint with thread.’”
One of his first works was a large version of the Medici Tapestry series. He’s also executed tapestries of the Crucifixion and Resurrection and the Madonna and Child and designed and stitched priestly vestments.
For many who know him, though, it’s the tapestries he weaves in people’s lives that matter.
Dr. Lourdes Scheerer, an Ob-Gyn in a local hospital whose family is in St. Brendan’s parish, found that Father Rodriguez “has a special way” of encouraging men to participate in the work of the Church.
“Through the years, several men who have come to weekday Masses at St. Brendan have served as a lector or altar server in his Masses. I cannot imagine these men doing these tasks otherwise,” she said. “They seem to do it first reluctantly, then they do it faithfully. Soon, they accompany Father Rodriguez in his visits to the sick and homebound. It is easy to get us women to do work for the Church, so to inspire these men to do this work is truly unique.”
Msgr. Michael Padazinski, administrator of St. Brendan’s, said that though Father Rodriguez is independent and keeps a low profile, he is a “very faithful priest.”
The Cuban-American celebrates daily Mass at the Monastery of Perpetual Adoration in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury section. The convent was founded in 1928 by nuns fleeing the Mexican persecution of the Church. Though he’s never tasted any of the tamales the sisters sell to support themselves, Father Rodriguez no doubt feels a kindred spirit with religious who fled a situation similar to what he escaped in Cuba.
Asked about the recent normalization of relations between the US and Cuba, the priest says, “Well, it’s politics and diplomacy. Will it affect the Cuban people in the near future? No, it won’t. This idea of filtering down the richness and things coming along with that—in my opinion, not in the near future, because it’s the same head controlling, and it won’t make that much difference for the general population. Just about everybody is poor, unless you are a member of the inner circle.”
Freedom of religion has improved, though, he says.
“At the beginning it was really bad,” he recalled. “Processions, which are popular in Hispanic culture, were forbidden immediately. Police were posted at the door of the churches to check who is going in. People were frightened because there were already so many murders and people going to prison, that the practice of religion declined dramatically.”
Noting that Cuban dissidents such as the Ladies in White are still being arrested, even after the establishment of diplomatic relations with the US, he mused about why Havana seems to still be afraid of granting people freedom to express their views.
“Because,” Father Rodriguez said, “once you taste a little freedom, you want some more.”
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