Let me start by telling you about a very significant happening that occurred in Cuba just about a month ago. It says a lot about the role of religion in Cuba today.
On August 15, 2011, the Catholic Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba preached a homily and celebrated Eucharist at a thanksgiving mass in the oldest city in Cuba, Baracoa. At the end of the service, he raised high the Cross of Parra and blessed some 2,000 people gathered in the city’s main square.
Those in attendance were wearing white T-shirts with the message:
500 generations of faith, 1511-2011, I saw a new heaven and a new earth.
The Cross of Parra — or the grapevine cross as it is called — was planted on the site of what would later become the city of Baracoa by Christopher Columbus on December 1, 1492.
The cross is kept in Baracoa in the parish church of Our Lady of the Assumption. It is believed to be the only one of the 29 crosses that Columbus reportedly planted on his travels around the Americas that is still in existence.
History tells us that Columbus arrived on Cuba’s far eastern coast on November 27, 1492, with two of his ships — the Nina and the Santa Maria.
As an aside, the dating of the Parra cross has been confirmed through scientific testing by Belgium’s Forestry Institute.
Carbon dating techniques confirm that the cell structure of the wood the cross is made of corresponds to a species that still exists in the mountains of of eastern Cuba near Baracoa.
Findings reinforce the belief that Columbus didn’t bring crosses with him to the New World, but fabricated them with indigenous materials after his arrival.
Anyway, let’s get back to the worship service.
The large gathering and celebration were noteworthy for what they have to say about religion in Cuba today, but of even greater importance is the fact that the cross has been declared a National Monument and Treasure of the Nation by the Cuban government.
This declaration wasn’t made quietly, but came with great fanfare.
The most prominent historian in Cuba, Eusebio Leal, made the announcement. Leal described the Eucharist in Baracoa that was celebrated in honor of the cross as
a beautiful celebration for and in our homeland, in the oldest of all the cities in Cuba.
He went on to say that the declaration making the cross a Treasure of the Nation was made “by virtue of the spiritual and heritage values” of the cross.
Leal also noted that a few days before the thanksgiving mass, President Raul Castro had declared the topic of faith “a cardinal topic of liberty.” He went on to say:
Raul’s address was as important for us as the Edit of Milan.
(If you’ll remember, in the fourth century AD, the Emperor Constantine proclaimed religious toleration in the Roman Empire, “allowing Christians to practice their faith freely.“)
It is the right of all those that today, for reasons of love of history or out of devotion, recognize in that Cross a part of their people.
All of these comments were cited in the Communist Party daily paper, Granma, raising the question:
What on earth is going on with Religion in Cuba today?
You won’t want to miss our next post in this series. It’s going to provide a snapshot of religious life in Cuba today. Sign up for our e-mail list to have it delivered to your mailbox automatically.