Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas, CRS Board Chair, has an article in the latest issue of America magazine on his recent to Cuba as part of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops delegation for the pastoral visit of Pope Benedict XVI. In the article, he talks about his first impressions of the nation that is so close to our borders, yet for most Americans, so isolated:
Psychologists and social scientists tell us that first impressions are very important and that we begin to form them quickly, perhaps as fast as five seconds after we first meet someone.
Late last March, I met Cuba.
My three days in the island nation—partly to be present for Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic visit and partly to see the work of Caritas Cubana that is supported by Catholic Relief Services—left me with some very strong first impressions.
Of course, I realize that a three day trip can never make one an expert or hardly give a full picture, especially of something subtle and complex. Three days nevertheless can be full of first impressions, and that certainly was my experience in Cuba.
During his trip, Bishop Kicanas was able to see first-hand the longstanding partnership between Caritas Cubana and Catholic Relief Services that is bringing the compassion of Catholics in the U.S. to so many in Cuba.
I was impressed to see how Caritas Cubana, partnering with our Cathoic Relief Services, is striving to respond to the overwhelming needs throughout Cuba.
I met Maritza Sanchez, director of Caritas Cubana, a gracious, energetic, deeply committed woman who works hard to earn the trust of the government so that Caritas can continue to assist people in need. Her staff supports the elderly, distressed families, parents caring for children with Down syndrome, people with HIV-AIDS.
We traveled to one of the poorest areas of Cuba to visit a center for the elderly who, too often, fall into the gaps in the nation’s ragged social services safety net. At the center, they get a nutritional meal and food for the spirit: attention, recognition, affirmation that they are important, they matter. One elderly man wearing a jaunty Havana hat spoke of how at the center he makes friends and enjoys the company of people he can laugh with.
I heard from Maritza how many families struggle to care for their children, especially children with special needs. Caritas Cubana provides a haven for poor children where their hunger can be eased, where they can find safe rest and loving care. Caritas Cubana works with parents to help educate them on how to deal with the specialized needs of children with Down syndrome.
The Church in Cuba stands ready to do more to respond to the desperate needs of so many.
And Bishop Kicanas’ lasting impression is that faith in Cuba is strong, and change for good will come, if slowly.
Faith remains deep in the hearts of the Cuban people. That faith stirs hope that life will be different with more opportunities and a more fulfilled life. Cuban people are blessed with many gifts, talents and resources. They stand ready to blossom abundantly like a full blown bougainvillea plant that draws your attention by its beauty.
As Pope Benedict said on leaving this land of promise, “Discouragement yields to hope, goodness dispels uncertainties and a powerful force opens up the horizon to beneficial and unexpected benefits.”
I left this short visit with a blessed assurance that in time all will be well. In the meantime, efforts must continue to engage Cuba as the Holy Father did by making his visit, mingling with the people, hearing their hopes and dreams and calling them to a renewal of faith. He asked that we “reject immovable positions and unilateral viewpoints” as we work for greater international cooperation that leads to change.