The Miami Herald, in advance of Pope Benedict’s papal visit later this month, reports on the vital role played by the Catholic Church in Cuba, particularly to the country’s neediest people:
Havana retiree Maria Antonia confesses that she would be starving without the free lunches doled out by her neighborhood Catholic Church.
The 69-year-old widow has a $12-a-month pension that barely covers six to eight days worth of food per month, and she has no relatives abroad who can send her a few extra dollars.
“A free lunch is a life-saver when a pound of pork costs more than $1,” says Maria Antonia. “The church to me is not just a temple or a mass. It is a way of surviving.”
As Cuban ruler Raúl Castro cuts government subsidies on the food and health sectors in an attempt to boost the all-but-stalled economy, the Catholic Church is trying to fill the growing gaps in the island’s unraveling social welfare net.
With millions in aid from Catholic exiles and groups abroad, parishes are increasingly running soup kitchens and health and education programs and working with troubled families and HIV-positive Cubans.
“The needs are growing, and the state has limited resources,” said Maritza Sánchez, director of Caritas Cubana, the island’s branch of the worldwide Catholic relief, development and social service organization.
The article quotes CRS’ Mary DeLorey on the ability of groups like Catholic Relief Services to assist people in the country.
Relations between church relief agencies and the government now “appear to be improving. They are less tense,” said Mary De Lorey, Latin America and Caribbean representative for the U.S.-based Catholic Relief Services (CRS).
Most large parishes now offer free meals several days per week, classes in computers and languages like English and French, as well as lectures on Cuban history and tutoring on business skills like accounting, according to church activists.
Mary also spoke about CRS’ work in Cuba.
Friends of Caritas Cuba in Boston, where Cardinal Sean Patrick has long been active in Cuba issues, sent the island branch 23 percent of the donations it received in 2010, and CRS accounted for about 21 percent, Sánchez added.
De Lorey said CRS’ Cuba program averages $160,000-$170,000 a year, mostly to train Caritas Cubana staffers and volunteers. It also sends the island two or three shipments of donated medical supplies a year, although that aid spikes during emergencies such as hurricanes, she noted.
CRS’ efforts in Cuba are narrow compared to other countries, De Lorey added, because in most other nations it can assist in areas such as education, agricultural development, microenterprise development and micro-financing.
Editors: Robyn Fieser of CRS Communications will be in Havana with the delegation from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops during Pope Benedict XVI’s pastoral visit.
Robyn’s contact info: