“How much everything has changed! How gorgeous the Cathedral is with those add-ons!” exclaimed a Catholic layman on returning to visit his native Pinar del Rio after three decades of exile.
The improvement of the infrastructure of the diocese, which started with the arrival of Archbishop Monsignor Jorge Enrique Serpa, is impressive. The construction work was fast-tracked and the traditional problems with permits disappeared. The cost of the strategy to sustain it, however, will be difficult to sustain.
Cardinal Jaime Ortega and Archbishop Serpa together undertook the task, which happened to please the Cuban authorities, removing part of the secular activity of the diocese to achieve, in exchange, benefits.
When in January 2007, Monsignor José Siro González Bacallao made official Serpa’s assumption of the Diocese, a new chapter began in the pastoral, religious and social life of the local church.
The appointment coincided with a rapprochement between the authorities and part of the Catholic hierarchy, led by the Archbishop of Havana, Jaime Ortega y Alamino. This improvement in relations culminated in the visit to Cuba of Benedict XVI, in March 2012, and the release from prison of a large group of political prisoners of the 2003 Black Spring.
The Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba also paved the way to understanding. The two bishops most uncomfortable for the Government were about to retire for reasons of age. In Santiago de Cuba, Pedro Meurice, old and sick ceded his episcopate to his disciple, Dionisio García. At the other end of the island, José Siro retired to Mantua and left the way open for the pact.
Since the inauguration of the new bishop in Pinar del Rio, it took just three months to begin the dismantling of all the works that were considered an obstacle to improving relations with the government.
It took just three months to begin the dismantling of all the works that were considered an obstacle to improving relations with the government
The members of the editorial board of the Church magazine Vitral were forced out, and the training center and publisher were dismantled. They also dissolved the Brotherhood of Assistance to Prisoners and Their Families, the Youth Ministry, the Catholic Commission for Culture and the Diocesan Council of Laity. Thus, the lay members left the structure of the Pinar del Rio Church.
When Monsignor Serpa took over, after 20 years serving in the Bogota Archdiocese, the Pinar del Rio Diocese had only 17 priests, fewer than 30 nuns, and a large group of committed lay people. The churches were deteriorated and the difficulties in obtaining permission for restoration were notable.
Now, for the first time in more than fifty years, all the parishes have priests, the number of members by religious congregation has grown, and the entry and establishment of other orders, among them the Brigidine Sisters, have been extended from Havana.
Management has been allowed, in addition to restoring the Cathedral, to enlarge the parish house and the construction of a complex of classrooms for catechisms and meetings. The Church has been able to buy a site for Caritas located in the center of the city, less than a block from the provincial headquarters of the Communist Party.
In addition, in just eight years Sandino is the first captive people to have a temple, one of the greatest diplomatic achievements in the last 25 years of the authorities insistently denying Siro permission. The return of the religious processions in all the dioceses is also a noted achievement of Serpa.
But the negative consequences of his mandate have also been felt. The bishop complains of a lack of motivation and commitment among the faithful, including to make donations. On the other hand, the social commitment is almost zero and the pastoral is ecclesial – more severe than the so-called clerical. Except for the Bishop, there is no presence of Church members in any social environment.
“The loss of moral authority is not achieved overnight,” whispers a Pinar del Rio Catholic. “Rebuilding costs far more than any new temple,” says the layman.
The legacy the current bishop will leave when he retires, at age 75, will be a magnificent architectural infrastructure that will not need to be touched for a while. The challenge will be re-form, articulate and prepare the Church formed by laymen which was dismantled.