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Pope invokes exiled priest as spiritual 'champion' for young Cubans

A statue of Jesus is part of the

A statue of Jesus is part of the altar for a papal Mass on Sept. 20, 2015, in Havana's Revolution Plaza where a sculpture of the revolutionary leader Che Guevara hangs. Credit: Getty Images/ Tony Gentile

Pope Francis spoke Sunday of a famed Cuban priest exiled to New York in the 19th century as he exhorted young people to find a better future by remembering their country's spiritual heritage.

Father Felix Varela is known in New York for helping poor Irish immigrants as pastor of Transfiguration Church on Mott Street and for serving as vice-chancellor of the growing diocese.

In his homeland, he was a brilliant scholar who ran afoul of Spanish authorities when he advocated Cuban independence. With a price on his head, he boarded a boat for New York in 1823 at the age of 35 to escape a death sentence.

Francis referred to Varela as he spoke of how to find a path of hope.

"We need to remember who we are, and in what our spiritual and moral heritage consists," he said. "This, I believe, was the experience and the insight of that great Cuban, Father Felix Varela."

Varela believed the church should be an advocate for human rights, said historian Patrick McNamara, who profiled the priest in his book "New York Catholics: Faith, Attitude & the Works."

He called the priest "a champion of human freedom and the rights and dignity of the individual." Varela was so brilliant as a scholar that he was allowed to join the faculty of his seminary even before he graduated, McNamara said. The priest's texts were used in seminaries throughout Latin America.

In New York, Varela was enormously popular among the Irish because of his help for immigrants, said Msgr. Thomas Shelley, a church historian who authored the bicentennial history of the Archdiocese of New York.

"He reached out to these people," Shelley said. "He welcomed them as immigrants. He was just a very good pastor."

In Cuba, both Marxists and Catholic Church leaders invoke Varela, McNamara said, noting that the late Cardinal John O'Connor of New York once declared that everything Varela did was "founded in his identity as a Christian and a Catholic."

Two popes -- St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI -- made a similar point in their trips to Cuba. Francis has added his voice to that.

What remains is a decision on whether Varela's cause for sainthood will move ahead in the canonization process. In 2012, Varela was declared "Venerable," an important step.

Images of 'Che' and Christ

Two enormous images stretched above Havana's Plaza de la Revolución as Pope Francis celebrated Mass on Sunday morning: a likeness of communist hero "Che" Guevara, and a gleaming banner of Jesus as the Divine Mercy.

Francis' homily was not overtly political, but he gently guided his flock away from political ideology and toward a God of mercy.

"I think that the images of Jesus and Che are really important to contextualize what he says, that service is not about ideology, it's about human beings," said Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, a professor of religious studies at the University of Miami who has studied religion in Cuba.

Speaking on a gospel that depicts Jesus' disciples arguing about who among them was most important, Francis offered a Christian ethic for merciful leadership rooted in service to flesh-and-blood people.

"Service always looks to their faces, touches their flesh, senses their closeness and even, in some cases, `suffers' in trying to help," he said. "Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people."

These are longtime themes for Francis, formed in the crucible of his experience as leader of the Jesuits in Argentina during a vicious war of political ideologies in the late 1970s. If the pope intended to aim that remark at Cuban President Raúl Castro, who was in the congregation, he didn't say so.

Instead, the pope offered his vision of leadership: "Christians are constantly called to set aside their own wishes and desires, their pursuit of power, and to look instead to those who are most vulnerable." He added that "We need to be careful not to be tempted by another kind of service, a `service' which is `self-serving.' "

The image of Jesus as Divine Mercy that hovered over the square was a favorite of Saint John Paul II, who declared the Sunday after Easter to be Divine Mercy Sunday. The devotion was spread in the 1930s by a Polish nun, Sister Faustina Kowalska, whom John Paul canonized in 2000.

For Francis, Divine Mercy serves "to heal every wound and to hasten concrete gestures of reconciliation and peace among the Nations," as he said in April.

It's no surprise that he is invoking that refrain in Cuba. Said Maldonado: "If there is one theme to this papacy, I think it's mercy."

An important meeting

They may have been some of the quieter moments of his Sunday, but the afternoon meeting Pope Francis held with Cuban leaders was an important one as he likely sought concessions from a government that tightly controls the practice of religion.

"The regime has not ceded much ground" in previous negotiations with the Catholic Church or the Obama administration, said Eusebio Mujal-Leon, a professor of government at Georgetown University who has studied Cuban politics and the Catholic Church. "Whether the government will cede airspace, radio-wave space for religious ceremonies, whether they will allow after-school religious instruction. Those are, I suspect, on the agenda."

Given the government's strong hand in regulating religion, space of all kinds is an issue for houses of worship in Cuba. Sunday morning will mark the third time a pope has been permitted to celebrate Mass in Havana's Revolution Square, but "it's still significant in a sense that the government is ceding the public space in a way that it doesn't to anyone else," Mujal-Leon said.

At the same time, he said, the church faces many restrictions.

There are varying schools of thought among Cuban bishops, Mujal-Leon said, on how hard the church should try to negotiate with Cuban President Raul Castro. Cuba's Cardinal Jaime Ortega has favored negotiation, and has been criticized as being too close to the government. Some bishops have "grown leery of too close an engagement," he said.

One issue important to Ortega is getting space to open Catholic schools, said the Rev. Drew Christiansen, a professor of ethics and global human development at Georgetown University. The schools would issue business degrees and include instruction on Catholic social teachings.

"The relationship between the church and government has gone up and down," Christiansen said.

The Catholic Church has long advocated an end to the United States' embargo against Cuba, and Catholic bishops in the United States have periodically addressed the issue in Washington. But the church's ability to win concessions from the Cuban government has been limited -- and it probably doesn't help that few Cuban Catholics are regular churchgoers.

Mujal-Leon said that even before the 1959 revolution succeeded, Catholicism was not felt as intensely in Cuba as in other Latin American countries.

"Then Catholicism was hammered . . . it developed a kind of bunker mentality and was isolated," he said. After the Cuban government lost support from the Soviet Union, it began in the 1990s to reconsider many of its relationships and permitted the papal visits.

Francis' approach is dialogue and, Christiansen said, "He's never had problems talking to communists. His own boss when he took his first job [as a chemist] was a very active communist . . . They've continued to be good friends."

Francis has something more -- the advantage of having helped Cuba achieve diplomatic relations with the United States.

"He is a bridge-builder," said Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, professor of religious studies at the University of Miami. "Everything that he does, particularly when it comes to Cuba, is a gesture of reconciliation and bridge-building."

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