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In remembrance: A tribute to my friend, Cardinal Ortega of Havana

© Arzobispado Habana
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The cardinal archbishop has passed away today, at the age of 82

An age-old Christian Christmas appeal asks God for “the prudence that makes us truly wise” (Cf. Christmas Novena: Aspirations of the Coming of the Christ Child (Los Gozos)). It is this prudence and wisdom that perfectly define the mood, personality, temperament, spirit and profile of Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, cardinal of Cuba. 

Prudence and wisdom define, in the best and most adequate manner, the life and work of this illustrious man, a great Christian, a generous priest and pastor, and an eminent Cuban.

In life, a great gift from God for any human being is a great friend. But, an even better gift in life is crossing paths with a great man, and a great friend, especially if he has been blessed with exquisite and exceptional virtues like prudence and wisdom and if, with these virtues, he goes through life illuminating everything in his path.

My intention in this article is not to leave a chronological-biographical account of Cardinal Ortega, but rather a testimony to the gift that life has granted me in enjoying the friendship of Jaime Ortega. A testimony of the close knowledge of his life and mission that the honor of his friendship has allowed me, and the way in which this closeness has accompanied and illuminated my own life and work.

I met Archbishop Ortega when he had recently been appointed Archbishop of Havana in 1981, the year when he was invited by Cardinal Terence Cooke, then-cardinal archbishop of New York, to direct the annual spiritual retreat for the Hispanic priests of the archdiocese. His Eminence Cardinal Cooke died shortly after his invitation to Cardinal Ortega. The beginning of the retreat coincided with the installation of Cardinal John O’Connor as archbishop of New York.

I mention this circumstance, because it also gave rise to the birth of a close and very important friendship between Archbishops O’Connor and Ortega which lasted for many years and which produced enormous benefits for the life and mission of the Church in Cuba in the midst of a regime that has governed there for six decades.

It is precisely here that greatness lies in the life and work of Cardinal Jaime Ortega. For nearly four decades and in the aforementioned Cuban socio-political context known by all, Cardinal Ortega – with a unique and rare combination of prudence and wisdom – sowed the Gospel and harvested hopes for a better future for his Homeland, drawing from his humanity, his Christianity, his vocation, and priestly and episcopal ministry. It is because of this sowing and harvesting that, today, Cardinal Jaime Ortega is and stands as an essential figure in understanding and explaining the life and history of the Island and the Catholic Church on it in recent decades.

We do not have sufficient time right now to fully reflect on, value, and mourn Pastor Jaime Ortega’s leading role in Cuba and in the Catholic Church that he fostered on the island. His pastoral performance was always connected with and faithful to the most genuine principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and not to ideological or political positions. It has been well recognized and applauded by some and misunderstood and wrongly criticized by others. This is because it is difficult to remain indifferent to the life and work of this great pastor.

Jaime Ortega is – first and foremost – a great shepherd of the Catholic Church. For so many years, as a priest, pastor and a distinguished leader of the Cuban Catholic Church, Jaime has served and he has forgiven; he has announced and he has denounced; he has worked for justice and truth; he has called for – when it was in vogue and when it was not – unity and reconciliation for the forgiveness of Cubans on and off the Island, without forgetting recent history, so that, according to his own words, “in the end, hatred loses.

Jaime Ortega was a leader of the Catholic Church and a protagonist of the life of a society and nation that became the center of attention for the world due to the sociopolitical process of the “Cuban revolution” and, in a global context, the “Cold War” between the two world powers of that time. During these times, always turbulent and not at all easy, we must read the text of Cardinal Ortega’s life and work which is always transparent and always frank. Always honest and always sincere. Always austere and always bright. Always prudent and always wise. Always generous, always ready to sacrifice, and to serve everyone for the Gospel. And, above all, always without abandoning his principles …

Read more: Castro and the 3 Popes who defended dignity in Cuba

In this context, Jaime Cardinal Ortega was always an indispensable figure in Church-State relations because he was already in the struggle to reopen and reconquer lost spaces for the work of the Church in Cuba and already working for the liberation of political prisoners. He was traveling the world as the voice of Cubans who had no voice or reconstructing the decimated, depressed and leaderless framework of the Church on the Island. A Church – at that moment – prostrate, depressed and isolated internationally and without resources or personnel. He was encouraging and shaping the hopes of Cubans in general, and of Catholic Christians in particular, and inviting the Catholic bishops of the island to dialogue with the government. 

Jaime received all the important personalities and representatives of international organizations visiting the island who frequently requested a meeting with the Archbishop of Havana, or mediating, shaping and forging and intervening in migration agreements between the Cuban government and the government of the United States through the episcopal conferences of both countries.

During his long episcopal ministry, Cardinal Ortega consecrated bishops, ordained priests, welcomed foreign clergy and religious women, rebuilt temples, and recovered Church properties that were given up as lost. He found spaces for dialogue and established new venues for Catholics on the Island with a new ecclesial and missionary drive. In carrying out his shepherding, and thanks always to his prestigious intermediation, the most recent three Popes have visited Cuba, i.e., John Paul II (1998), Benedict XVI (2012) and Francis (2015).

Jaime’s distinguished and courageous personality, prudence and wisdom, authority and mediation, achieved dialogue and credibility in Cuba and in the rest of Latin America, in Rome, and in the Cuban government, even if, early on, distrust marginalized him. He achieved a place for, and credibility with the Cuba government, and with the Catholic Church in the United States. Proof of this is the help obtained by Cardinal Ortega for the Church in Cuba. Especially the pastoral and social action destined for the most underprivileged and impoverished in Cuban society.

True to the motto on his coat of arms: “My grace is sufficient for you” (the grace of God), my friend Cardinal Jaime Ortega faithfully served the Church and the Gospel navigating between applause and disapproval, between incomprehension and recognition, between the glory of serving God and the sacrifice for coherence with and adherence to Christ’s cross.

Jaime Ortega: a man of letters, an intellectual who had knowledge of several languages, with a taste for classical art, and simple and affable with those closest to him, lived a life of 82 years that built us all up and, as I said, leaves no one among us indifferent.

The life and work of Jaime Ortega remain for posterity. I am sure that history will view him as he was: a great human being, a flawless friend, an exemplary Christian and a pastor dedicated to the best causes for the good of all, especially those entrusted to him, and as an outstanding son of Cuba and Jesus Christ.

This is the imprint that Cardinal Jaime Ortega leaves on me and – for sure – on the lives of all those of us who have had the good fortune to cross his path during his 82 years of fruitful and unparalleled existence. May God grant us all, like him, “the prudence that makes us truly wise.”

Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have shown you are trustworthy in small things; I will trust you with greater; come and join in your master’s happiness.”  Matthew, 25:23 

Read more: The pontiff and the dictator: What St. John Paul II told Fidel Castro and the Cuban people

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