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New York’s Cardinal Dolan meets with Cuban president in Havana

John Burger - published on 02/13/20 - updated on 02/13/20

Archbishop tells Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez Church wants to "be a partner in the public square."

New York’s Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan met with the President of Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, on Dolan’s first visit to the island nation.

A statement issued by President Díaz-Canel’s office after Tuesday’s meeting said the cardinal “visits our country at the invitation of the Cuban President and the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba.”

“The meeting went very well, and it was no surprise because he’s always extraordinarily cordial,” Dolan told Catholic News Service following the encounter in Havana. “I said I’m not here as a politician. I’m here as a pastor, Mr. President. I want you to know how much I admire my brother bishops” in Cuba.

Dolan reported that during the 50-minute meeting he reiterated the desire of the Church “to just be a partner in the public square in any project that enhances the dignity of the human person, human life, the dignity of the family, the importance of marriage, and the real deep heritage of faith found in the Cuban people,” according to Catholic News Service.

He said he found the president to be “realistic” but also “yearning to see if there could be good relations.”

“This is His Eminence’s first visit to the Island, where he has been welcomed with hospitality and respect,” said the statement from the president’s office. “During his stay, he has had exchanges with members of the Conference of Catholic Bishops and has visited places associated with the activity of the Church and other places of interest. He has also officiated several Masses, among them, in the Minor Basilica of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre in Santiago de Cuba and in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Havana.”

Auxiliary Bishop of Brooklyn, New York, Octavio Cisneros, and Bishop Emilio Aranguren Echeverría, President of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba, accompanied Dolan to the meeting with Díaz-Canel. Cuban officials at the meeting included Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parilla and Caridad Diego Bello, Head of the Office of Attention to Religious Affairs of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba.

The meeting took place on the last full day of a six-day visit to the island nation. Other stops included humanitarian organizations and facilities where the island’s Catholics operate services for the poor and elderly, CNS reported.

“We’ve been very thrilled to meet priests and women religious, lay leaders and the faithful and they are happy, and they love Jesus and his Church,” the cardinal told CNS. “I’m so grateful for the openness of Cuba to allow priests and sisters and lay faithful leaders into Cuba to help in the mission of the Church.”

According to Dolan it was the third time he’d met Diaz-Canel. The last time was in 2018, when Diaz-Canel, then new in office after Raul Castro stepped down, spoke before the United Nations in New York. He asked for a meeting with Dolan at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

The visit recalled Cardinal Dolan’s predecessor Cardinal John J. O’Connor’s meeting with Fidel Castro in 1988, in the waning years of the Cold War. Ten years later, Pope John Paul II became the first pope to visit the island nation, and the move is thought to have helped the Church gain more freedom in the communist country.

In 2014, the Obama Administration and Havana announced the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, something that relied heavily on Vatican diplomacy and the work of Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana, who died in 2019. The two nations reopened their respective embassies in Havana and Washington.

Under President Donald J. Trump there was a reversal of those policies, with new restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba.

Dolan told CNS that Diaz-Canel said he was appreciative of the efforts by the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, saying that dialogue is always better than antagonism and that mutual exchanges in commerce and culture are beneficial to the understanding of people, “and I affirmed that,” the cardinal said.

He also took aim at the long-standing U.S. embargo of Cuba, which, he said, causes suffering among ordinary people and have no effect on government leaders. If others, including educational leaders, business leaders, artists, writers and leaders of other faith communities, could visit Cuba, he said, “I think … things would warm up.”


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