They grew up without God in what was once an officially atheist country, the sons and daughters of militant communists who never considered enrolling them in catechism class.
Others were baptized as children of nominal Roman Catholics, and never returned to church.
But Cuba’s young people are flocking to the Roman Catholic Church and other faiths, searching for lost traditions and a spirituality they say is lacking in their lives. Their presence in the pews has become even more pronounced with the approach of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba next month.
“I needed a change in my life. My life was so turbulent with too many parties, too much drinking,” Alfredo Placensia, 30, said Saturday outside the Jesus de Miramar Catholic church, where Cuba’s leading prelate led a gathering of 1,200 young people.
“Now if I don’t go to Mass every day, I feel bad. The church is now the center of my life,” he said. Placensia was baptized as an infant, but did not return to church until a year and a half ago. He is studying for his first Communion.
“These young people are the hope of the church in the 21st century,” said the Rev. Felipe Tejerino, the parish priest at Jesus de Miramar. Tejerino, who is from Spain, said he has seen interest in the church blossom since he arrived in Cuba six years ago.
“The young people are looking for a way out from their problems and find that the church satisfies them,” the priest said.
Saturday’s crowd, including those from their early teens to early 30s, crammed into the pews at Jesus de Miramar - Havana’s largest church - to sing Christmas songs and listen to a special message from Cardinal Jaime Ortega.
Ortega warned them to beware of “escapes” from life that could cause physical and spiritual harm - drugs, sexual promiscuity, alcohol.
“A home with a family, an affectionate life: a husband, a wife, children - that is naturally right,” the prelate said. “In your search for sense in your life, look for a centering place: the Catholic Church.”
Ortega also spoke of young Cubans’ mounting interest in the church, saying 1,500 letters reach the Vatican each week from Cuba, most of them from young people.
The young men and women, most of them wearing T-shirts announcing the upcoming papal visit, listened attentively and responded enthusiastically.
“Long live the pope!” they shouted. “Long live the church! Long live Cuba!”
The Cuban church has no estimates of the number of young people attending services, but a visit to any Roman Catholic parish in Havana will find a majority of worshipers under 30, singing loudly and swaying to the music, holding hands with their friends.
At the Medalla Milagrosa church in the Santa Suarez neighborhood, an especially active parish, nearly 500 young people attend catechism classes every Saturday.
Born after the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power and the ensuing early years of tension between his communist state and the church, Cuba’s young Catholics say they rarely have experienced the problems some churchgoers did in the 1960s and 1970s.
“I have never been marked for being a Christian,” said Joel Estevez, 16. “Not at school, not anywhere.”
Castro’s communist government officially embraced atheism in 1962, and in the years that followed many churchgoers stopped attending religious services for fear of not being seen as sufficiently “revolutionary.”
But state-church relations have warmed in recent years, especially since the government officially declared itself secular rather than atheist in 1992 and the Communist Party dropped a ban on religious believers in 1991.
Even young people from militantly communist, atheist families say they have encountered little resistance from their parents when they announce they are going to church.
“My father is a military man, and he didn’t really say anything,” said Daniel Bruzon, 23.
Bruzon began attending church services a year ago, at the invitation of a friend, and plans to be baptized shortly after the new year.
“I like coming to church,” he said. “I find a peace here I can’t find anywhere else.”