Cardinal Ortega of Havana, Cuba Receives Knights Highest Award
* By Randy Sly
* Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
The Knights of Columbus Presented its Gaudium et Spes Award to Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino
During the States Dinner, Tuesday evening, of the Knights 128th Supreme Convention, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson presented the order's highest award, the Gaudium et Spes Award, to Cardinal Ortega of Havana for his tireless witness to the Gospel and his persistent defense of religious freedom.
Supreme Chaplain Bishop William E. Lori and Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson congratulate Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino of Havana, Cuba, Gaudium et Spes Award honoree.
WASHINGTON, DC (Catholic Online) - At the States Dinner, Tuesday evening, for the Knights of Columbus 128th Supreme Convention, the order awarded its eighth Gaudium et Spes Award to Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino of Havana, Cuba.
Cardinal Ortega, 74, was born in Jaguey Grande, Matanzas, Cuba. After studying at seminaries both in Cuba and Quebec, Canada, he was ordained a priest in 1964. Like many of his fellow-priests, he was arrested and spent a period of time in prison for his faith.
He was appointed as the Bishop of Pinar del Rio and received episcopal consecration in 1979. Appointed Archbishop of Havana, in 1981, he was named to the Sacred College of Cardinals in 1994.
The citation read at the dinner stated, "For nearly 30 years as archbishop, our honoree has guided the Cuban Church through often rough waters. But in January 1998, a new era of hope dawned when he welcomed Pope John Paul II to his country. During that apostolic visit, Pope John Paul II asked for Cuba to open itself to the world and for the world to become more open to Cuba, as he underscored the central place that the Catholic faith has played in the lives of the Cuban people."
In his acceptance speech, Cardinal Ortega said it was "a duty to publicly say special words of gratitude for the services rendered by the Knights of Columbus in favor of our Church in Cuba. You, dear Knights of Columbus, have actualized the motto of this year's convention, I am My Brother's Keeper.
"Regardless of the distance and the differences in our social or political systems, you have been brothers to the Cuban Catholics and have shown us your solidarity."
Reflecting on the fact that the Knights of Columbus founded its first Cuban council in 1909, the Cardinal brought an optimistic report concerning the current work among the laity.
"I must say that the laymen of Havana are already organizing groups of men who wish to join the Knights of Columbus in the various parishes. I now convey to you an entreaty on their behalf and a very especial invitation from the Archbishop.
"I can assure you that nowadays the situation is more favorable for the action of charity services characteristic of the Knights of Columbus in the Cuban Church.
"Plenty of social works for the elderly people, for disabled children, parochial workshops to help those with learning difficulties, for youngsters and adults who wish to learn humanities or the Church Social Doctrine, etc., are some of the possibilities for a social presence of the Church in Cuba, which is exceeded by these efforts also carried out by numerous Mission Houses that gather communities of 60, 70 or even 100 people in family homes.
"Many times, these communities are looked after by catechist laymen who prepare the faithful to evolve from evangelized communities to Eucharistic communities. In my Archdiocese several of these communities have turned into parishes. Now we must build parish churches. We have already achieved some permits to build them, but our Church is poor and needs help."
Cardinal Ortega also indicated a new level of cooperation desired by the Cuban government with the Church.
"Lately, the Cuban government, responding to our request, has asked us to mediate between the political prisoners' relatives and the government authorities in order to know their proposals. In this way a process began, which has led to the recent announcement that fifty-two convicts, considered prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International, will be released in a period of three to four months. More than twenty of these prisoners have already traveled to Spain.
"These discussions conducted by the Church have been unprecedented, and they bring about a new situation of social appreciation for our Catholics. We hope that this process of dialogue, in which we are immerged now, ends successfully. We ask you to pray for this cause and for our Church in Cuba."
According to the Knights of Columbus Supreme Headquarters, the Gaudium et Spes ("Joy and Hope") Award was named for the landmark 1965 document that was released as part of Second Vatican Council. It is the highest honor bestowed by order and is awarded only in special circumstances to individuals of exceptional merit. The award recognizes them for exemplary contributions to the realization of the message of faith and service in the spirit of Christ. The Award comes with an honorarium of $100,000.
First given in 1992, when the late Mother Theresa of Calcutta was named as the recipient, the award has only been given eight times. Others who have been honored include Cardinal John O'Connor, former Archbishop of New York; the late Cardinal James Hickey, former Archbishop of Washington DC; Cardinal William Baum, former Archbishop of Washington, D.C. and Major Penitentiary of the Vatican; and Archbishop Michael Sabbah, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.
Randy Sly is the Associate Editor of Catholic Online and the CEO/Associate Publisher for the Northern Virginia Local Edition of Catholic Online (http://virginia.catholic.org). He is a former Archbishop of the Charismatic Episcopal Church who laid aside that ministry to enter into the full communion of the Catholic Church.
Prisoner releases, ongoing talks with Castro give Cuban cardinal hope
Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino of Havana speaks in an interview with Catholic News Service. He was in Washington to attend the Knights of Columbus Supreme Convention. (
By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The release of the first 20 of 52 political prisoners the Cuban government has promised to set free is a hopeful sign for the country, said Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino.
While the government's release of prisoners certainly is popular in Cuba, where dissatisfaction with the economy and other issues has been growing, Cardinal Ortega told Catholic News Service Aug. 2 that the main benefit to the Castro government has been improved foreign relations. Cuba's treatment of political opponents has long been a key element in the nearly 50-year U.S. economic embargo of the nation.
"In the internal life of Cuba, this is not very important," Cardinal Ortega said. "But for foreign relations, it's very important."
Cardinal Ortega was in Washington to accept the "Gaudium et Spes" Award from the Knights of Columbus. It is the fraternal organization's highest honor.
The cardinal said Cubans have been especially grateful to the Catholic Church for its role in the prisoner releases. He said that as he went out to buy something for his trip to the U.S., "many, many people stopped me on the street, saying 'thank you, Cardinal.'"
He said before he and the president of the Cuban bishops; conference, Archbishop Dionisio Garcia Ibanez of Santiago met with President Raul Castro in May, tensions in Havana were threatening to become as volatile as they were around the 1980 Mariel boatlift. Then, at a time of economic downturn, the government opened the port of Mariel to all who wanted to leave Cuba, and boats from the United States quickly arrived to help them. About 125,000 Cubans ultimately resettled in the United States as a result of the Mariel releases.
Cardinal Ortega explained that he asked to meet with Castro amid a crackdown this spring on weekly silent marches by wives and mothers of political prisoners, known as the Ladies in White, who want freedom for their relatives. The usually quiet marches that begin after Sunday Mass were met by counter-protesters -- allegedly brought in by the government -- who shouted and blocked the women, harassing the group for hours.
"It was beginning to look like the time of Mariel," said Cardinal Ortega. "It was causing instability."
After several weeks of this, Cardinal Ortega said, he wrote to Castro. The letter went out on a Monday and by Thursday, he had been contacted by a government official, seeking to arrange a meeting with the Ladies in White. At that meeting, the women asked for relatives who were imprisoned far from their homes to be moved closer to their families and for the release of those who were in poor health. Those requests soon were being met, and the counter-protesters stopped harassing the women on the weekly marches.
"After that first meeting, we began a conversation (with the government)" said Cardinal Ortega.
After a follow-up meeting with Castro in July, the cardinal announced that Castro had promised to release a group of prisoners who had been held since a 2003 crackdown on political opposition.
Cardinal Ortega said he met with diplomats at the U.S. Interests Section, which serves in place of an embassy for some government functions. He said he was told the prisoners could not come immediately to the United States. The U.S. "wanted to take a low profile," he said, adding that the diplomats told him requests for political asylum would have to be processed individually.
In the meantime, the Spanish government agreed to allow the ex-prisoners to go to Spain, though nearly all would prefer to resettle in the United States, where they have relatives, the cardinal said. Some have said they would refuse to be sent out of the country, and it remained unclear whether that would affect their release. Cardinal Ortega added that he expected the remainder of the 52 to be released in the next couple of months.
He said the Cuban people's biggest current frustration is the weak economy. Castro announced some economic changes in a July 31 speech opening the biannual session of Parliament, including scaling back controls on small businesses, allowing more self-employment and laying off unnecessary government workers.
The cardinal said he had not read Castro's speech yet, but that he found the announcement encouraging.
Beyond their economic struggles, the cardinal said a high priority for most Cubans is that they have better means of communicating within the country and beyond. While people are allowed to use the Internet, for example, it's quite costly and runs poorly because of inadequate infrastructure, he said.
"To communicate easily with their relatives and to be able to go to the U.S. for visits and then return to Cuba," that's what people want, the cardinal said.