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Cubans Learning To Pray Again Crowds Attend Open-Air Masses As Communist Nation Relaxes Rules

Sun., Nov. 2, 1997

Like a schoolteacher explaining the intricacies of cursive writing, the Roman Catholic nun patiently demonstrated the sign of the cross to hundreds of men, women and children.

And then you say, “Amen,” said the bespectacled sister in a gray habit.

“Amen!” the crowd responded happily.

As this communist nation prepares for Pope John Paul II’s visit in January, the Roman Catholic Church is trying to educate a highly secular society about the faith that arrived on the island five centuries ago.

“There have been many years of secularization, a lot of Marxist education,” lamented Enrique Lopez Oliva, a historian of religion and a practicing Roman Catholic.

Open-air Masses are being celebrated by Cardinal Jaime Ortega, faithful are going door to door, and catechism classes are being conducted for hundreds of Cubans nurtured on the philosophies of Marx and Lenin.

“The people have forgotten how to make the sign of the cross,” said Daisy de Toro, a 55-year-old physician who has carried news of the pope’s visit and copies of the Book of St. Mark to all of her neighbors.

“They have forgotten how to pray,” she said. “It is our job to teach them how all over again.”

Younger people have responded most enthusiastically, de Toro said. At her parish, nearly 500 young people show up every Saturday to study the Catholic catechism in preparation for First Communion.

Officially atheist since the early 1960s, Cuba’s government began softening its stance on religion in recent years. Catholics and other believers were granted permission in 1991 to join the Communist Party.

“There has not been a change; there is just more flexibility,” said Caridad Diego, the party’s chief of religious affairs.

The push to bring people back to the faith of their forefathers began after communism collapsed in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Cuba lost its former socialist partners and was plunged into dire economic crisis. Struggling for food and other goods the government once provided with Soviet subsidies, many Cubans suddenly felt adrift.

Searching for a new moral compass, many found it in religion: the African faiths of santeria and palo monte, spiritism and Roman Catholicism.

The trend is reflected in the growing number of baptisms and other sacraments performed, said Orlando Marquez, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Havana.

In the capital, a city of 2 million people, the number of baptisms rose from 16,604 in 1987 to 33,554 in 1995. Two Sundays a month, Torres performs an average of 40 baptisms.

More dramatic is the increase in weddings, First Communions and confirmations.

“A lot of people have lost their faith over the years,” said Maria Ortiz, mother of two, grandmother of 10 and great-grandmother of seven. “But things now are getting better for the church. The faith is coming back.”

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