The Canonization of Oscar Romero

On October 14, 2018, Pope Francis at the Vatican canonized Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. The Vatican’s press release briefly stated the following:

  • “Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated on March 24, 1980 as he was saying Mass in the chapel of the Divine Providence cancer hospital where he lived.  He was an outspoken voice for the poorest people of his country, so got caught up in a conflict between the military government and guerilla groups that claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives.”
  • “Thirty five years later, he was declared a martyr of the Church, killed out of hatred of the faith, and was beatified on May 23rd[1]

Pope Francis, who wore the bloodstained rope belt that Romero wore when he was assassinated, canonized Romero and Pope Paul VI at a Mass in St. Peter’s Square before about 70,000 faithful, a handful of presidents and 5,000 Salvadoran pilgrims who traveled to Rome to honor a man whom many Latin Americans consider a hero. Back in El Salvador’s capital, tens of thousands more Salvadorans stayed up all night to watch the Mass on giant TV screens outside the cathedral where Romero’s remains are entombed. Below are photographs of the crowd at St. Peter’s, Pope Francis and of  photographs of Romero and Pope Paul VI hung on the exterior of St. Peter’s.

 

 

 

Pope Francis’ Homily

In his homily Pope Francis said that Romero “left the security of the world, even his own safety, in order to give his life according to the Gospel, close to the poor and to his people, with a heart drawn to Jesus and his brothers and sisters.”

The homily was based upon Hebrews: 4: 12-13 (NRSV): “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” The passage from Hebrews “tells us that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword . . . . It really is: God’s word is not merely a set of truths or an edifying spiritual account; no – it is a living word that touches our lives, that transforms our lives. There, Jesus in person, the living Word of God, speaks to our hearts.”

“The Gospel, in particular, invites us to an encounter with the Lord, after the example of the ‘man’ who ‘ran up to him’ (cf. Mk10:17). We can recognize ourselves in that man, whose name the text does not give, as if to suggest that he could represent each one of us. He asks Jesus how ‘to inherit eternal life’ (v. 17). He is seeking life without end, life in its fullness: who of us would not want this? Yet we notice that he asks for it as an inheritance, as a good to be obtained, to be won by his own efforts. In fact, in order to possess this good, he has observed the commandments from his youth and to achieve this he is prepared to follow others; and so he asks: ‘What must I do to have eternal life?’”

“Jesus’s answer catches him off guard. The Lord looks upon him and loves him (cf. v. 21). Jesus changes the perspective: from commandments observed in order to obtain a reward, to a free and total love. That man was speaking in terms of supply and demand, Jesus proposes to him a story of love. He asks him to pass from the observance of laws to the gift of self, from doing for oneself to being with God. And the Lord suggests to the man a life that cuts to the quick: ‘Sell what you have and give to the poor…and come, follow me’ (v. 21).”

“To you, too, Jesus says: ‘Come, follow me!’ Come: do not stand still, because it is not enough not to do evil in order to be with Jesus. Follow me: do not walk behind Jesus only when you want to, but seek him out every day; do not be content to keep the commandments, to give a little alms and say a few prayers: find in Him the God who always loves you; seek in Jesus the God who is the meaning of your life, the God who gives you the strength to give of yourself.”

Again Jesus says: ‘Sell what you have and give to the poor.’ The Lord does not discuss theories of poverty and wealth, but goes directly to life. He asks you to leave behind what weighs down your heart, to empty yourself of goods in order to make room for him, the only good. We cannot truly follow Jesus when we are laden down with things. Because if our hearts are crowded with goods, there will not be room for the Lord, who will become just one thing among the others. For this reason, wealth is dangerous and – says Jesus – even makes one’s salvation difficult. Not because God is stern, no! The problem is on our part: our having too much, our wanting too much suffocates us, suffocates our hearts and makes us incapable of loving. Therefore, Saint Paul writes that ‘the love of money is the root of all evils’ (1 Tim 6:10). We see this where money is at the centre, there is no room for God nor for man.”

“Jesus is radical. He gives all and he asks all: he gives a love that is total and asks for an undivided heart. Even today he gives himself to us as the living bread; can we give him crumbs in exchange? We cannot respond to him, who made himself our servant even going to the cross for us, only by observing some of the commandments. We cannot give him, who offers us eternal life, some odd moment of time. Jesus is not content with a ‘percentage of love’: we cannot love him twenty or fifty or sixty percent. It is either all or nothing.”

“Dear brothers and sisters, our heart is like a magnet: it lets itself be attracted by love, but it can cling to one master only and it must choose: either it will love God or it will love the world’s treasure (cf. Mt 6:24); either it will live for love or it will live for itself (cf. Mk 8:35). Let us ask ourselves where we are in our story of love with God. Do we content ourselves with a few commandments or do we follow Jesus as lovers, really prepared to leave behind something for him? Jesus asks each of us and all of us as the Church journeying forward: are we a Church that only preaches good commandments or a Church that is a spouse, that launches herself forward in love for her Lord? Do we truly follow him or do we revert to the ways of the world, like that man in the Gospel? In a word, is Jesus enough for us or do we look for many worldly securities? “

“Let us ask for the grace always to leave things behind for love of the Lord: to leave behind wealth, leave behind the yearning for status and power, leave behind structures that are no longer adequate for proclaiming the Gospel, those weights that slow down our mission, the strings that tie us to the world. Without a leap forward in love, our life and our Church become sick from ‘complacency and self-indulgence’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 95): we find joy in some fleeting pleasure, we close ourselves off in useless gossip, we settle into the monotony of a Christian life without momentum, where a little narcissism covers over the sadness of remaining unfulfilled.”

“This is how it was for the man, who – the Gospel tells us – ‘went away sorrowful’ (v. 22). He was tied down to regulations of the law and to his many possessions; he had not given over his heart. Even though he had encountered Jesus and received his loving gaze, the man went away sad. Sadness is the proof of unfulfilled love, the sign of a lukewarm heart.”

“On the other hand, a heart unburdened by possessions, that freely loves the Lord, always spread’ joy, that joy for which there is so much need today. Pope Saint Paul VI wrote: ‘It is indeed in the midst of their distress that our fellow men need to know joy, to hear its song’ (Gaudete in Domino, I). Today Jesus invites us to return to the source of joy, which is the encounter with him, the courageous choice to risk everything to follow him, the satisfaction of leaving something behind in order to embrace his way. The saints have travelled this path.”

Conclusion

In my first trip to El Salvador in April 1989 I started to learn about Oscar Romero and his courageous denunciations of human rights violations by the Salvadoran government and, to a lesser extent, the rebels. For these acts he was assassinated while he was saying mass in a small, modern and beautiful chapel on the grounds of a cancer hospital across the street from his small apartment. As a Protestant Christian I came to regard Romero as my personal saint. Thus, I treasure the Roman Catholic Church’s formally recognizing him as a saint.[2]

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[1] Vatican, Bl. Oscar Romero: A martyr of the option for the poor, Vatican News (Oct. 14, 2018); Vatican, Booklet for the Celebration: Holy Mass and Canonizations (14 Oct. 2018); Vatican, Homily of His Holiness Pope Francis (Oct. 14, 2018); Zra, Óscar Romero, Archbishop Killed While Saying Mass, Will Be Named a Saint on Sunday, N.Y. Times (Oct. 13, 2018); Assoc. Press, Pope’s Canonization of Paul VI, Romero Personal, Political, N.Y. Times (Oct. 13, 2018); Sherwood, Salvadoran priest óscar Romero to be declared saint by Pope Francis, Guardian (Oct. 11. 2018); Winfield & Aleman, Pope makes El Salvador’s Oscar Romero and Pope Paul VI saints, Wash. Post (Oct. 14, 2018); Pavoledo, Archbishop Óscar Romero and Pope Paul VI Are Made Saints, N.Y. Times (Oct. 14, 2018).

[2] Previous posts have discussed my discovery of Romero and various legal proceedings about his assassination. (See the posts listed in the “Oscar Romero” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: EL SALVADOR. A website totally devoted to honoring Romero and promoting his beatification and canonization is Super Martyrio. There also are frequent posts about Romero in the blog El Salvador Perspectives.

Archbishop Oscar Romero To Be Canonized as a Saint by the Roman Catholic Church                                                                                                     

As discussed in previous posts, the Roman Catholic Church on May 23, 2015, beatified Archbishop Oscar Romero after it had determined that he was a martyr, who is someone who was killed because of hatred of his Christian faith and, therefore, who did not have to have committed a miracle for this honor. Such beatification is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for someone to become a saint of the Church.[1]

On March 6, 2018, Pope Francis authorized the Church’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints to promulgate a decree concerning “the miracle, attributed to the intercession of Blessed Oscar Arnulfo Romero Galdámez, archbishop of San Salvador.” That miracle was the healing of a Salvadoran pregnant woman who was suffering from life-threatening complications, but who was healed after she had prayed for Romero’s intercession. [2]

This papal decree followed the October 2017 unanimous decision by a Vatican panel of medical experts that there was no scientific explanation for the woman’s recovery; the December 2017 approval of that decision by a panel of theologians; and the February 2018 approval of that decision by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

The Congregation for the Causes of Saints is the congregation of the Roman Curia that oversees the complex process that leads to the canonization of saints, passing through the steps of a declaration of “heroic virtues” and beatification. After preparing a case, including the approval of miracles, the case is presented to the Pope, who decides whether or not to proceed with beatification or canonization.[3]

In 2016, Cardinal Parolin, under the mandate of Pope Francis, approved the current Regulations for the Medical Board of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints that introduced the necessity of a qualified majority of at least at least 5/7 or 4/6; to proceed to the examination of a presumed miracle. These new rules approved by Pope Francis are designed to make the process for approving a miracle in a sainthood cause more stringent.

We now await announcement of the time and place of the canonization.

As someone who strives to be a Christian of the Presbyterian persuasion and who already has self-designated Romero as his personal saint because of his courage in proclaiming the Gospel in El Salvador and denouncing its government’s violations of human rights, I am grateful for the Roman Catholic Church’s making Romero’s sainthood official.

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[1] Previous posts about Oscar Romero are listed in the “Oscar Romero” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: EL SALVADOR.   Here are the ones about his beatification: Beatification of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero? (May 23, 2013); Progress on Vatican’s Canonization of Oscar Romero (May 20, 2014); Pope Francis Urges Swift Beatification of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero (Aug. 22, 2014); Comment: Salvadoran Bishops Unhappy with Possible Beatification of Oscar Romero (Oct. 5, 2014); University of Centro America Endorses Beatification of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero (Nov. 25, 2014); Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero Closer to Beatification (Jan. 19, 2015); Pope Francis Confirms Martyrdom of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero (Feb. 3, 2015); Additional Details About Future Beatification of Oscar Romero (Feb. 4, 2015); Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero To Be Beatified on May 23, 2015 (Mar. 13, 2015).

[2] Vatican, Promulgation of the Decrees of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, 07.03.2018Pope Francis approves sainthood for Oscar Romero, Catholic Herald (Mar. 7, 2018); O’Connell, Pope Francis opens the door for canonization of Oscar Romero and Paul VI, America: The Jesuit Review (Mar. 7, 2018); Pope approves miracle for Romero, SuperMartyrio (Mar. 7, 2018); Canonization of Oscar Romero announced, El Salvador Perspectives (Mar. 7, 2018).

[3] Vatican, Congregation for the Causes of SaintsCongregation for the Causes of Saints, Wikipedia.

 

 

Pope Francis’ Offers Advice for Everyone 

On January 6, Pope Francis offered advice for everyone in his homily at a Papal Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.[1]

The Papal Mass was celebrating the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord when the Magi followed the star to find Jesus and bring him gifts. The homily focused on those three actions of the Magi: seeing the star, setting out to find him and bringing him gifts.

Seeing the Star

“But why, we might ask, did the Magi alone see the star? Perhaps because few people raised their eyes to heaven. We often make do with looking at the ground: it’s enough to have our health, a little money and a bit of entertainment. I wonder if we still know how to look up at the sky. Do we know how to dream, to long for God, to expect the newness he brings, or do we let ourselves be swept along by life, like dry branches before the wind? The Magi were not content with just getting by, with keeping afloat. They understood that to truly live, we need a lofty goal and we need to keep looking up. (Emphasis added.)

Jesus’ “star was not eye-catching, did not shine any brighter than other stars. . . . Jesus’ star does not dazzle or overwhelm, but gently invites. We may ask ourselves what star we have chosen to follow in our lives. Some stars may be bright, but they do not point the way. So it is with success, money, career, honors and pleasures when these become our life. They are meteors: they blaze momentarily, but then quickly burn out and their brilliance fades. They are shooting stars that mislead rather than lead. The Lord’s star, however, may not always overwhelm by its brightness, but it is always there, ever kindly: it takes you by the hand in life and accompanies you. It does not promise material reward, but ensures peace and grants, as it did to the Magi, “exceedingly great joy” (Mt 2:10). But it also tells us to set out.” (Emphasis added.)

Setting Out

His star demands a decision to take up the journey and to advance tirelessly on our way. It demands that we free ourselves from useless burdens and unnecessary extras that only prove a hindrance, and accept unforeseen obstacles along the map of life. Jesus allows himself to be found by those who seek him, but to find him we need to get up and go, not sit around but take risks, not stand still, but set out. Jesus makes demands: he tells those who seek him to leave behind the armchair of worldly comforts and the reassuring warmth of hearth and home. Following Jesus is not a polite etiquette to be observed, but a journey to be undertaken. God, who set his people free in the exodus and called new peoples to follow his star, grants freedom and joy always and only in the course of a journey. In other words, if we want to find Jesus, we have to overcome our fear of taking risks, our self-satisfaction and our indolent refusal to ask anything more of life. We need to take risks simply to meet a Child. Yet those risks are immensely worth the effort, since in finding that Child, in discovering his tenderness and love, we rediscover ourselves.” (Emphasis added.)

Bringing Gifts

“The Gospel becomes real when the journey of life ends in giving. To give freely, for the Lord’s sake, without expecting anything in return: this is the sure sign that we have found Jesus. For he says: ‘The gift you have received, give freely as a gift’ (Mt 10:8). To do good without counting the cost, even when unasked, even when you gain nothing thereby, even if it is unpleasant. That is what God wants. He, who become small for our sake, asks us to offer something for the least of his brothers and sisters. Who are they? They are those who have nothing to give in return, the needy, the hungry, the stranger, the prisoner, the poor (cf. Mt 25:31-46). We give a gift pleasing to Jesus when we care for a sick person, spend time with a difficult person, help someone for the sake of helping, or forgive someone who has hurt us. These are gifts freely given, and they cannot be lacking in the lives of Christians. Jesus reminds us that if we only love those who love us, we do as the pagans do (cf. Mt 5:46-47). Today let us look at our hands, so often empty of love, and let us try to think of some free gift that we can give without expecting anything in return. That will please the Lord. And let us ask him: ‘Lord, let me rediscover the joy of giving’”. (Emphasis added.)

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[1] The Holy See, Homily of Pope Francis (Jan. 6, 2018); D’Emilio, Pope: don’t be misled by making money and career your life, Wash. Post (Jan. 6, 2018).

U.S. State Department’s Positive Assessment of Cuban Religious Freedom  

On August 15, 2017, the U.S. State Department released its annual report on religious freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories in the world. This report is a requirement pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended; legislation that upholds religious freedom as a core American value under the Constitution’s First Amendment, as well as a universal human right. This law calls for the government to, quote, “[Stand] for liberty and [stand] with the persecuted, to use and implement appropriate tools in the United States foreign policy apparatus, including diplomatic, political, commercial, charitable, educational, and cultural channels, to promote respect for religious freedom by all governments and peoples.”[1]

The release was accompanied by remarks from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said, “conditions in many parts of the world are far from ideal. Religious persecution and intolerance remains far too prevalent. Almost 80 percent of the global population live with restrictions on or hostilities to limit their freedom of religion. Where religious freedom is not protected, we know that instability, human rights abuses, and violent extremism have a greater opportunity to take root.” He specifically mentioned serious concerns about religious freedom in ISIS, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bahrain, China, Pakistan and Sudan. Subsequently Ambassador Michael Kozak, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, conducted a telephone conference briefing with journalists.[2]

Our focus here is examining the report’s substantially positive assessment of religious freedom in Cuba in 2016.[3] A more negative evaluation of Cuba was provided earlier this year by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an unusual, quasi-governmental group; its report about Cuba  also will be discussed before providing my own observations.

State Department’s Assessment of Cuba[4]

Religious Demography

“The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.2 million (July 2016 estimate). There is no independent, authoritative source on the overall size or composition of religious groups. The Roman Catholic Church estimates 60 to 70 percent of the population identify as Catholic. Membership in Protestant churches is estimated at 5 percent of the population. Pentecostals and Baptists are likely the largest Protestant denominations. The Assemblies of God reports approximately 110,000 members and the Four Baptist Conventions estimate their combined membership at more than 100,000 members. Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate their members at 96,000; Methodists at 36,000; Seventh-day Adventists at 35,000; Anglicans, 22,500; Presbyterians, 15,500; Episcopalians, 6,000; Quakers, 300; and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), 100. The Jewish community estimates it has 1,500 members, of whom 1,200 reside in Havana. According to the Islamic League, there are 2,000 to 3,000 Muslims residing in the country, of whom an estimated 1,500 are Cubans. Other religious groups include Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Buddhists, and Bahais.”

“Many individuals, particularly in the African Cuban community, practice religions with roots in West Africa and the Congo River Basin, known collectively as Santeria. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism, and some require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate accurately their total membership.”

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government and the Cuban Communist Party monitored religious groups through the Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) in the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and continued to control most aspects of religious life. Observers noted that the government harassed some religious leaders and their followers, with reports of threats, detentions, and violence. Evangelical and other Protestant religious leaders reported the government threatened to expropriate some religious properties under zoning laws passed in 2015 but took no action during the year. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported in a January publication that there was an increase in government threats to close churches from 2014 to 2015. The majority was related to government threats to close churches belonging to Assemblies of God congregations, but the Assemblies of God and the government were able to reach an agreement which enabled the churches to stay open. Religious groups reported a continued increase in the ability of their members to conduct charitable and educational projects, such as operating before and after school and community service programs, assisting with care of the elderly, and maintaining small libraries of religious materials. Multiple high-level leaders from Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious groups agreed the religious freedom environment had improved compared to past years.” (Emphases added.)[5]

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.” (Emphasis added.)

“U.S. embassy officials met with officials from the ORA to discuss the registration process for religious organizations and inquire about the rights of nonregistered groups to practice their religion. Embassy officials also met with the head of the Council of Cuban Churches (CCC), an officially recognized organization that has close ties to the government and comprises most Protestant groups, to discuss their operations and programs. The [U.S.] Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the [U.S.] Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs met with leaders of Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious groups to discuss the religious freedom environment in the country. The embassy remained in close contact with religious groups, including facilitating exchanges between visiting religious delegations and religious groups in the country. In public statements, the U.S. government called upon the government to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the freedom of religion.”

U.S. Commission’s Evaluation of Cuba[6]

On April 26, 2017, the Commission released its 2017 report on religious freedom in 36 countries and one region, in contrast to the nearly 200 countries covered by the State Department. The Commission’s nine unpaid, part-time commissioners are appointed by various federal government officials supported by an ex-officio non-voting member (U.S. Ambassador David Saperstein), an executive director, four directors, an executive writer, five policy analysts, one researcher and four administrative staff, all based in Washington, D.C. It apparently has an annual budget of only $ 3.5 million.[7]

The 36 countries (and one region) evaluated by the Commission fall into the following three groups:

  • The 16 countries that the Commission believes constitute “countries of particular concern” (CPC) or “any country whose government engages in or tolerates particularly egregious religious freedom violations that are systematic, ongoing, and egregious” and that the Commission recommends that the State Department so designate. (Pp. 3-4)
  • The 12 countries that the Commission believes constitute “Tier 2 nations in which the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are serious and characterized by at least one of the elements of the ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious’ CPC standard;” Cuba is one of these 12 countries (Pp. 3-4)
  • The 8 other countries and one region that the Commission has monitored, but are not deemed to be CPC or Tier 2. (Pp. 3-4)

For Cuba, the Commission’s “Key Findings” were the following: “During the reporting period, religious freedom conditions in Cuba continued to deteriorate due to the government’s short-term detentions of religious leaders, demolition of churches, and threats to confiscate churches. In addition, the Cuban government harasses religious leaders and laity, interferes in religious groups’ internal affairs, and prevents—at times violently—human rights and pro-democracy activists from participating in religious activities. The Cuban government actively limits, controls, and monitors religious practice through a restrictive system of laws and policies, surveillance, and harassment. Based on these concerns, USCIRF again places Cuba on its Tier 2 in 2017, as it has since 2004.” (P. 134)

Almost all of the specifics that purportedly underlie these Key Findings relate to churches affiliated with the Apostolic Movement;[8] Assemblies of God churches, which the State Department reports had settled its problems with the Cuban government; the Western Baptist Convention; and the detentions of Ladies in White protestors (pp. 136-38). Apparently, the Commission’s discussion of Cuba is based in whole or in part on reports by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which has headquartered in the United Kingdom with offices in Washington, D.C. and Brussels, Belgium and which only obtained U.N. accredited consultative status after eight years by the U.N. Economic and Social Council in April 2017 by a vote of 28-9 with 12 abstentions.

Purportedly based on these Key Findings, the Commission made certain recommendations to the federal government (p. 134).

Conclusion

I believe that the State Department’s assessment on Cuba is more reliable than that from the U.S. Commission, as a mere comparison of their respective reports and as the mere listing of the various religious groups active on the island in the Department’s report should demonstrate.

Moreover, the Department has experienced diplomats in Cuba who met during the year with various Cuban government and religious officials supplemented by visits to Cuba by Washington, D.C. Department officials with responsibility for assessing religious freedom around the world. In contrast, the Commission is a very small organization with limited resources in Washington, D.C. without personnel in Cuba or visits to Cuba and that apparently has focused on a small number of Cuban churches, some of which apparently are affiliated with a little-known church in California and with apparent reliance on a little-known U.K. group that only recently received U.N. accredited consultative status by a divided vote.

The Department’s assessment also is supported by my personal experience.

Over the last 15 years as a member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church I have been actively involved in our partnerships with a small Presbyterian-Reformed Church in the city of Matanzas on the north coast of Cuba and with the national Synod of that church. I have been on three church mission trips to Cuba to visit our partner and other Presbyterian-Reformed churches and its campimento (camp) on the island, the ecumenical seminary in Matanzas (Seminario Evangelico de Teologia), Havana’s office of the Council of Cuban Churches and Havana’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and its affiliated Martin Luther King, Jr. Center and Pastor Rev. Raúl Suárez, who has served in Cuba’s legislature (National Assembly of People’s Power).

I also have welcomed and discussed Cuban religious life with Cuban members and pastors on their visits to Minneapolis, including Rev. Dra. Ofelia Miriam Ortega Suárez, the Directora of Havana’s Instituto Cristiano de Estudios Sobre Gênero and a member of Cuba’s legislature (National Assembly of People’s Power). In addition, I have heard from other Westminster members and pastors about their trips to Cuba. This includes some Westminster members who have been involved in installing clean water systems in Cuban Presbyterian-Reformed churches through the Living Waters for the World Ministry of the Synod of Living Waters of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), our denomination, and a Westminster member is now the Moderator of the Cuba Network Coordinating Team for that organization.[9]  Finally I read widely about Cuba, especially its relations with the U.S. and its religious life.

These connections have been very important to me personally and to others at Westminster as we stand in solidarity with our Cuban brothers and sisters. I also was impressed and moved by Pope Francis’ encouragement of U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation in 2013-2014 and his pastoral visits to Cuba and the U.S. in 2015.[10]

I, therefore, believe that at least in the 21st century there has been an ever-increasing role for, and freedom of, religion in Cuba as this poor country struggles to improve the spiritual and economic welfare of its people. I also believe that Westminster and other U.S. churches’ partnering with Cuban churches and people along with Pope Francis’ witness have been God’s servants aiding, and continuing to aid, these encouraging changes.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Preface: International Religious Freedom Report for 2016 (Aug. 15, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, Overview and Acknowledgement: International Religious Freedom Report for 2016 (Aug. 15, 2017).

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, Secretary Tillerson: Remarks on the 2016 International Religious Freedom Report (Aug. 15, 2017); Special Briefing: Ambassador Michael Kozak, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (Aug. 15, 2017).

[3] Other posts have discussed the State Department’s and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s previous assessments of Cuban religious freedom along with comments by others and the international law regarding freedom of religion; they are listed in the “Cuban Freedom of Religion” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Cuba.

[4] U.S. State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Report for 2016: Cuba (Aug. 15, 2017).

[5] This positive development was emphasized in the body of the Cuba report, which stated, “Religious groups reported their leaders continued to travel abroad to participate in two-way exchanges between local faith-based communities and those in other countries. The majority of religious groups continued to report improvement in their ability to attract new members without government interference, and a reduction in interference from the government in conducting their services.”

[6] U.S. Comm’n Int’l Religious Freedom, 2017 Annual Report (April 26, 2017); Press Release: USCIRF Releases 2017 Annual Report (April 26, 2017).

[7] Grieboski, The Case for Pulling the Plug on the US Commission on  International Religious Freedom, Huffpost (Dec. 18, 2011); Press Release: Rubio Celebrates Signing Of U.S. Commission On International Religious Freedom Reauthorization Act Into Law (Oct. 15, 2015).

[8] The Apostolic Movement apparently is headquartered in San Diego, California as “a Fivefold Ministry organization headed by an Apostolic team of Fivefold Ministers . . .[with] a mandate from God the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ, to go and prepare the Body of Christ for the final move of God . . . [by finding] the Hidden Warriors whom He has hidden away, waiting for the time of their manifestation [based upon the belief that] God has reserved for Himself apostles, both men and women, who are not currently visible or part of the Status Quo Church System.”

[9] A brief discussion of these Westminster connections with Cuba occurs in this blog post: Praise God for Leading U.S. and Cuba to Reconciliation (Dec. 22, 2014).

[10] See the blog posts listed in the “Pope Francis Visits to Cuba & U.S., 2015” in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

Pope Francis’ Message for World Peace

Pope Francis
Pope Francis

Pope Francis renewed his calls for peace and goodwill throughout the Earth on Friday, New Year’s Day, the Solemnity of the Mother of God and the World Day of Peace. The Holy Father’s appeal came from the window of his study at the Apostolic Palace before and after the Angelus prayer with pilgrims and visitors gathered in St. Peter’s Square. Here are extracts from his remarks.[1]

“The biblical blessing continues: “[The Lord] give you peace” (v. 26). Today we celebrate the World Day of Peace, whose theme is: “Overcome indifference and win peace.” The peace that God the Father wants to sow in the world must be cultivated by us. Not only [cultivated], it must also be ‘conquered.’ This involves a real struggle, a spiritual battle that takes place in our hearts. Because the enemy of peace is not only war, but also indifference, which makes us think only of ourselves and creates barriers, suspicions, fears and closures [of mind and heart]. And these things are the enemies of peace. We have, thank God, much information; but sometimes we are so inundated with news that we are distracted from reality, from the brother and sister who needs us. Let us begin this [new] year to open our hearts, awakening attention to our neighbor. This is the way to win the peace.”

“I express gratitude for the many initiatives of prayer and action for peace organized all over the world on the occasion of today’s World Day of Peace. . . .  Dear friends, I encourage you to continue your commitment to reconciliation and harmony.”

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[1] The words of the Pope at Angelus (Jan. 1, 2016); Pope Francis: Angelus appeal for peace, Va. News (Jan. 1, 2016); Povoledo, Pope Francis Urges Overcoming ‘Indifference’ to Attain Peace, N.Y. Times (Jan. 1, 2016).

 

 

Resolution of Problem of Cuban Migrants Stranded in Central America

On December 28, 2015, five Central American countries and Mexico apparently resolved the problem created by the presence of 6,000 to 8,000 Cuban migrants in Costa Rica. Many of the circumstances leading up to the presence of these migrants have been discussed in prior posts.[1] This post will review subsequent events that have made the problem more pressing for Costa Rica, the recent agreed-upon solution for this problem and issues presented for its full implementation.

Recent Developments

On December 18, 2015, Costa Rica suspended its participation in the political bodies of the Central American Integration System (SICA) because of the refusal of three members (Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua) to seek a regional solution to the transit of the migrants on their way to the U.S.[2]

On the same date, Costa Rica announced that it would no longer issue any more transit visas to Cubans seeking to enter the country and that it would deport to Cuba any Cubans in the country without such visas. [3]

On Sunday, December 27, Pope Francis led the Angelus Prayer with pilgrims and tourists gathered in St. Peter’s Square from the window of his study in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican. Immediately after the prayer, Francis said, “[M]y thoughts at this time to the numerous Cuban migrants who find themselves in difficulties in Central America, many of whom are victims of human trafficking. I invite the countries of the region to renew generously all necessary efforts to find a timely solution to this humanitarian tragedy.”[4]

Agreed-Upon Solution[5]

On Monday, December 28, Costa Rica, Panama, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala met in Guatemala with the International Organization for Migration and agreed to what they called a “pilot project” to resolve the Cuban migrants problem. Here the main points of that “pilot program:”

  • In the first week of January 2016, 250 of the 6,000 to 8,000 migrants in Costa Rica will be flown from San Jose, Costa Rica to San Salvador, El Salvador, where they will obtain the latter’s transit visas.
  • These migrants will then be transferred to buses to be taken from El Salvador through Guatemala and Mexico to the latter’s northern border with the U.S. while obtaining on the journey the latter Guatemala and Mexican transit visas.
  • At the U.S. border, the migrants will present their papers to U.S. immigration officials and presumably will be allowed to come into the U.S. under its dry feet/wet feel policy.

In addition, the five Central American countries and Mexico reaffirmed their commitment to combat human trafficking networks, to apply the law “without delay” in order to severely penalize this illegal activity that “unfortunately obliges countries in the region to return to their country of origin all persons entering their territory in an unauthorized manner, ”to prevent irregular migration and to firmly combat the crime of human trafficking, and primarily to protect the integrity of migrants and ensure respect for their fundamental rights,” They also agreed to convene a Regional Conference on Migration to address this issue in its entirety.

El Salvador’s announcement of this agreement stated that its participation in the solution was “in line with the call made by His Holiness Pope Francis, in his message of December 27.” This sentiment was echoed by Edgar Gutiérrez, a political analyst and former Guatemalan foreign minister, who said, “I believe that the pope’s comments were extremely important to accelerate the negotiation process.”

The U.S. and Cuba were not directly involved in the negotiations of this agreement, but according to the Wall Street Journal, both of these countries had pressed the Central American countries to reach a regional agreement on resolving the current situation before the end of this year. They did so after the U.S. reportedly rejected a Costa Rica request for the U.S. to airlift the migrants directly to the U.S. and after Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez stated that “Cuba requests that the solution for the thousands of Cuban migrants in Costa Rica is adequate, taking into account the welfare of these citizens, and that it is as swift as possible.”

Just before this agreement was reached, the New York Times published a letter from Costa Rica’s Ambassador stressing “the growing humanitarian and economic challenge that Costa Rica faces in caring for [the Cuban migrants].”[6]

Concerns About the Agreed-Upon Solution

 The current public information about the agreed-upon solution presents the following questions (and problems):

  • Will the ‘pilot project” be successful?
  • If it is successful, how many separate flights and bus trips will be necessary for all 6,000 to 8,000 migrants legally in Costa Rica? Based upon the 250 migrants involved in the “pilot project,” it will require a total of 32 such ventures for 8,000 migrants.
  • Over what period of time?
  • The “pilot project” and implementation for all of the 6,000 to 8,000 migrants now in Costa Rica with transit visas will be expensive. At only $1,000 per person the total cost would be $6 million to $8 million. Who will pay for it? The countries directly involved clearly are not wealthy countries and presumably cannot afford it. As a result, they probably will ask the U.S. to do. So. Will the U.S. agree to do so?
  • Will the U.S. still have the dry feet/wet feet policy in effect when the “pilot program” and other migrants arrive at the U.S. border and, therefore, be permitted to come into the U.S.?

An overarching concern is whether this agreement will encourage additional Cubans to leave their country in an effort to get to the U.S. next year, especially after Cuban President Raul Castro’s December 29 speech to the country’s National Assembly warning Cubans that next year will be a difficult year for the Cuban economy.[7]

Carlos Raúl Morales, Guatemala’s foreign minister, said, “We are finishing the work of the smugglers, and of course it will incentivize the arrival of more illegals, but in solidarity we could not ignore the drama in Costa Rica.”  Similar thought were offered by Eric Olson, a Latin American analyst at the Wilson Center in Washington.

Central American officials, however, stressed the deal was one-off due to a humanitarian situation and that Costa Rica has ended the transit-visa program that had opened the door to Cuban migrants. “This solution is absolutely an exception for those people who had already arrived legally,” Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel González told reporters after the agreement was reached on Monday. “Costa Rica has been very clear that we cannot establish a permanent mechanism” for Cuban immigrants. A Mexican diplomatic official concurred: “The agreement among all of us is that we had to solve this under the principle of shared responsibility and that the problem cannot repeat itself.”

Another result of the surge of Cuban migrants through Central America and of the agreement to resolve the current situation will be the enlistment of all of the Central American countries plus Mexico in Cuba’s effort to persuade the U.S. to terminate as soon as possible its “dry feet/wet feet” immigration policy for Cubans.

This U.S. immigration policy can also be seen as part of the U.S. “visa waiver” program, which currently is under legitimate review for future restrictions to attempt to prevent foreign terrorists from coming to the U.S.[8]

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[1] Cubans in Central America Provide Cuba with Opportunity To Reiterate Its Objections to U.S. Immigration Policies (Nov. 20, 2015); Update on Cuban Migrants in Central America (Nov. 27, 2015); U.S. and Cuba Fail to Resolve Complaints About U.S. Immigration Policies (Dec. 1, 2015); Status of Cuban Migrants in Central America Still Unresolved ((Dec. 11, 2015).

[2] Costa Rica Foreign Ministry, Costa Rica suspends participation in political bodies of SICA refusal to Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize agreed solution to the transit of Cuban migrants, (Dec. 18 2015).

[3]   Assoc.Press, Costa Rica Suspends Visas for Cubans as Regional Protest, N.Y. Times (Dec. 18, 2015); Assoc. Press, Costa Rica Moves to Deport 56 Cuban Migrants, N.Y. Times (Dec. 26, 2015).

[4] The Words of the Pope at Angelus, 27/12/2015Pope Francis Angelus appeal for Cuban migrants, Va. News (Dec. 27, 2015).

[5] Assoc. Press, Costa Rica: Some Stranded Cubans to be Allowed to Continue North, N.Y. Times (Dec. 28, 2015); Costa Rica Foreign Ministry, Countries in the region agree to give exceptional, safe passage and ordered Cuban migrants (Dec. 28, 2015); Guatemala Foreign Ministry, Press the Republic of Guatemala regarding the meeting held to address the immigration status of Cubans in Costa Rica (Dec. 28, 2015); El Salvador Foreign Ministry, El Salvador reiterates its readiness to cooperate with immigration crisis solution (Dec. 28, 2015); Central American agreement to transfer first group of Cuban migrants, Granma (Dec. 29, 2015); Iliff & Montes, Accord Over Cubans Stranded in Costa Rica Sparks Fear of Illegal Migration Wave, W.S.J. (Dec. 29, 2015).

[6] Macaya, Letter to the New York Times (Dec. 28, 2015).

[7] Iliff & Montes, Accord Over Cubans Stranded in Costa Rica Sparks Fear of Illegal Migration Wave, W.S.J. (Dec. 29, 2015); Assoc. Press, Raul Castro Prepares Cuba for Tough Year Despite US Opening, N.Y. Times (Dec. 29, 2015); Raul Castro, We never accept conditionalities for lacerating the sovereignty and dignity of the homeland, Granma (Dec. 30, 2015).

[8] E.g., Hulse, Some revealing Moments as Congress Closes the Door on 2015, N.Y. Times (Dec. 21, 2015)

Pope Francis’ Christmas Message 

Pope Francis
Pope Francis

At the midnight Christmas Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, Pope Francis delivered a moving homily. Here are extracts of that homily.

“Tonight . . . the light of Jesus’ birth shines all about us. . . . . Joy and gladness are a sure sign that the message contained in the mystery of this night is truly from God. There is no room for doubt; let us leave that to the sceptics who, by looking to reason alone, never find the truth. There is no room for the indifference which reigns in the hearts of those unable to love for fear of losing something. All sadness has been banished, for the Child Jesus brings true comfort to every heart.”

“Today, the Son of God is born, and everything changes. The Saviour of the world comes to partake of our human nature; no longer are we alone and forsaken. . . . The true light has come to illumine our lives so often beset by the darkness of sin. Today we once more discover who we are! Tonight we have been shown the way to reach the journey’s end. Now must we put away all fear and dread, for the light shows us the path to Bethlehem. We must not be laggards; we are not permitted to stand idle. We must set out to see our Saviour lying in a manger. . . . The people who for two thousand years have traversed all the pathways of the world in order to allow every man and woman to share in this joy is now given the mission of making known ‘the Prince of Peace’ and becoming his effective servant in the midst of the nations.”

“[L]et the Child speak. Let us take his words to heart in rapt contemplation of his face. If we take him in our arms and let ourselves be embraced by him, he will bring us unending peace of heart. This Child teaches us what is truly essential in our lives. He was born into the poverty of this world; there was no room in the inn for him and his family. He found shelter and support in a stable and was laid in a manger for animals. And yet, from this nothingness, the light of God’s glory shines forth. From now on, the way of authentic liberation and perennial redemption is open to every man and woman who is simple of heart. This Child, whose face radiates the goodness, mercy and love of God the Father, trains us, his disciples, as Saint Paul says, ‘to reject godless ways’ and the richness of the world, in order to live ‘temperately, justly and devoutly”’(Tit 2:12).”

In a society so often intoxicated by consumerism and hedonism, wealth and extravagance, appearances and narcissism, this Child calls us to act soberly, in other words, in a way that is simple, balanced, consistent, capable of seeing and doing what is essential. In a world which all too often is merciless to the sinner and lenient to the sin, we need to cultivate a strong sense of justice, to discern and to do God’s will. Amid a culture of indifference which not infrequently turns ruthless, our style of life should instead be devout, filled with empathy, compassion and mercy, drawn daily from the wellspring of prayer.”

“Like the shepherds of Bethlehem, may we too, with eyes full of amazement and wonder, gaze upon the Child Jesus, the Son of God. And in his presence may our hearts burst forth in prayer: ‘Show us, Lord, your mercy, and grant us your salvation’ (Ps 85:8).”