At a press conference on Tuesday, Sept. 27, Catholic Extension President Father Jack Wall and delegations of Catholic bishops from Cuba and Puerto Rico announced the launch of two new efforts by the Chicago-based fundraising and church-building organization to support the Catholic Church in the Caribbean.
Speaking at the press conference, Father Wall called the organization’s new support for church infrastructure projects in Cuba and the increase of its longstanding support for the Catholic Church in Puerto Rico “two truly historic partnerships that will further build and strengthen the Church in Latin America.” He went on to quote the Puerto Rican poet Lola Rodríguez de Tió, who famously wrote, “Cuba and Puerto Rico are two wings of the same bird.”
According to Father Wall, the recent opening of the Cuban Church — begun by Pope St. John Paul II’s visit to Cuba, and furthered by Pope Benedict in 2012 and Pope Francis last year — “has paved the way for a new U.S.-Cuban Catholic partnership focused on helping the Cuban Catholic Church with one of its most pressing needs: the repair and construction of churches and church facilities.
Archbishop Dionisio Garcia of Santiago de Cuba, the president of the Cuban Catholic bishops’ conference, said, “We are very grateful to Catholic Extension for their new initiative, which speaks volumes of their pastoral concern and fraternal spirit. This collaboration is beginning on solid ground. Our church is in dire need of resources and infrastructures as well as pastoral ministers and means for its pastoral work. Thanks be to God, the Spirit has moved the Church.”
He added, “In the middle of these needs in this difficult time, our church in Cuba is prayerful, incarnated and missionary. Prayerful because we know that our strength only comes from the Lord, and if we trust in him, the church will move forward. It is incarnated because we find that especially in the challenges, the gospel has to be present. Christ can heal our wounds, and it is right there that the Church needs to be. And it is also missionary because even with our limited resources, the Spirit has moved the church to go out on a mission, even when it was prohibited.”
He added that Catholic Extension’s “commitment to help us in this area of what we call the ‘dead stones,’ can then make it possible for ourselves to be the ‘living stones.’ This help is very important and needed.”
In a statement, Archbishop Blase Cupich, the chancellor of Catholic Extension, said, “Catholic Extension’s announcement today that it is partnering with the Catholic Church in Cuba to repair and rebuild churches there and increase its financial support in Puerto Rico represents a significant step in helping Catholics in these areas to keep their faith alive and growing.”
He added, “As a papal society, Catholic Extension is carrying out the mandate of Pope Francis to go to the peripheries, which has always been its mission. We are, in a very tangible way, extending the church and the love of Christ to our neighbors.
“Our work in Cuba and Puerto Rico will be mutually beneficial,” Archbishop Cupich said. “While we are offering funding and other resources, we are at the same time enriched by the inspiring example and the witness of living faith given by our partners on these two islands. As Catholic Extension’s chancellor, I am very proud of these new initiatives and look forward to working with our brothers and sisters in faith in Cuba and Puerto Rico.”
The Catholic Church in Cuba
For many decades the Cuban Catholic Church, like other Christian denominations, has not had adequate facilities for its worship and its religious, social and charitable activities. But that is beginning to change, and in the case of the Catholic Church, it has recently been able to reacquire churches from the Cuban government. However, most of these reacquired churches require extensive repairs and reconstructions.
In addition, due to lack of funding and resources, churches in Cuba have also been struggling to repair many of the church buildings that were destroyed by Hurricanes Ike in 2008 and Sandy in 2012 and left in ruin ever since.
The Christian churches in Cuba welcome the recent positive developments. Despite its limited financial and material resources, the Catholic Church is now developing plans for providing more churches and facilities for its pastoral ministries.
The Catholic Church in Puerto Rico
Meanwhile the Church in Puerto Rico has been experiencing significant fallout from the current debt and economic crisis that brought Puerto Rico’s economy and government services to the brink of collapse this year and that has led to the largest wave of outmigration from Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland in more than 50 years. Over the past five years, the island’s population has shrunk by 7 percent to 3.4 million.
According to Archbishop Roberto González of San Juan, the Puerto Rican Catholic Church has seen an increase in people seeking its social services at a time when its own resources are greatly reduced.
Earlier this year, the archbishop was one of the most prominent advocates for a plan to restructure the island’s $72 billion debt, which became law in June. Despite being troubled by the lack of Puerto Rican decision making authority, he supported what is called the PROMESA (Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act) plan as the only viable path out of the crisis.
Speaking at the press conference, Archbishop González said, “In Puerto Rico, we have been the beneficiaries of Catholic Extension’s generosity for over a hundred years. It has made a big difference, and we thank you for your perseverance and generosity.”
He explained that the current debt crisis “has begun to cripple the financial and physical infrastructure of Puerto Rico” and that “the situation is slowly evolving into what could be a very serious humanitarian crisis. We see it especially among our elderly. The Catholic Church, through Caritas, is doing all that we can to address the increasing poverty on the island. Approximately 60 percent of children in Puerto Rico live in poverty today.”
“The church needs an infrastructure, and that is where Extension has been most helpful to us, because we need to attend to the ‘living stones,’ but we also need to attend to the structures of the church because that makes possible our physical presence.”
How We Can Help
Catholic Extension is undertaking the partnership with the Cuban Catholic Church as a temporary, three-year engagement that includes an initial pilot phase and has as its goal to help with construction and repair projects of churches and church facilities throughout all of Cuba’s 11 dioceses.
Catholic Extension has been active in Puerto Rico since its first assistance in 1908 for a building project in the Archdiocese of San Juan. Since then, Catholic Extension’s funding to the island’s six dioceses has totaled more than $54 million (or $100 million when adjusted for inflation). More than 40 percent, or $22 million, of these funds have gone toward 1,400 building projects for churches and church facilities. Over the past five years combined, funding from Catholic Extension to Puerto Rico has been almost $6 million. Catholic Extension is working with the bishops to identify the needs in Puerto Rico in order to increase its presence and funding to assist during the debt crisis.
Earlier this month, Extension also announced that its 2016-2017 Lumen Christi Award – Catholic Extension’s highest honor – is the first ever recipient from Puerto Rico. Melva Arbelo is the director of Santa Teresita of the Child Jesus Children’s Home for abused and neglected children in the Diocese of Arecibo.