Havana, Cuba, February, 2022

 My name is Br. Matteo Marcheselli ofm. I am a member of the Seraphic Province of St. Francis in Assisi. I am presently in Havana, Cuba, living with the friars as part of a discernment process as to whether the Lord is calling me to minister in Cuba in the near future. I would like to share the following thoughts and some experiences I have had since arriving on the 15th of January in the parish of the Holy Cross, Playa, Havana.

 The following are a few words to share some thoughts after a few weeks in Cuba, at a time we are hearing the dramatic news of war in Ukraine, which occupy our thoughts and sensibilities. I arrived on January 15th and was received by the friars of the Delegation in Cuba, which is an entity of the Custody of the Caribbean (including the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rica), which in turn is part of the Basque Province, Spain. At the moment there are five solemnly professed friars and three in temporary vows studying philosophy and theology in the Dominican Republic. Since arriving I have lived in the parish of ‘The Holy Cross of Jerusalem’ with Br. Gearóid Francisco Ó Conaire (an Irish man, responsible for the delegation and the parish priest, as well as Br. Gerard Saunders (United States). Br. Jesus Aguirre Garza (Mexican and United States), Br. Colombanus Arrellana (Mexico), Br. Luis Pernas (Cuban and recently ordained priest) and Lorisley Petón (Cuban Postulant) live in the fraternity of St. Anthony’s, a Sanctuary also in the parish. All three friars in temporary vows are Cuban, very hopeful for the future of the mission!

For me to live in the context of parish life has been an important opportunity. I immediately began to participate in parish activities, such as lectio divina, with a group of lay people: a really powerful and humble moment, at which I was able to participate in the sharing of life experiences, of listening to one another and to become more connected with reality here, through the daily life events of the people.

With Br. Gearoid Francisco I also visited the sick, a privileged time of encounter with senior citizens, who have lived a radical faith journey, truly edifying, as well as discovering that they are among the poorest of the poor here. Unfortunately, many Cubans are leaving the country searching for a better life, often leaving members of their families alone and even abandoned. I met a congregation of sisters who generously and creatively dedicate their ministry to the care of the elderly, using one of our friaries. It certainly is a beautiful testimony.

The friars threw me in at the deep end, encouraging me to celebrate and preach at the eucharist. I have to say, I appreciated the ‘therapy’, as it helped me overcome my fear and sense of inadequacy; through the sincere kindness of the parishioners, a typically Cuban characteristic of welcome.  Centuries of colonialism and the presence of foreigners has not made the people rancorous, but rather has enabled them to open up to other peoples near and far.

I have observed and have come to appreciate a highly cultured people, many of whom are graduates, while remaining unassuming and humble: for them, many of whom are doctors, biologists and academics, etc. Education is not a reason to feel superior to others, as attested to by their volunteering to clean the church with such a natural simplicity.

The parish was able to access financial support from a German ecclesial organization, Adveniat, to restore the church, one with a unique title, the Holy Cross of Jerusalem.

By living here, I have come to know a variety of other people involved in church ministry. It’s true that missionary life helps facilitate this closeness: for example, Javier, a Spanish man and a consecrated member of the Focolar movement, coordinates the reconstruction project with support from the archdiocese; a group of young artists-carpenters who are presently organizing themselves into a professional association, basing their inspiration on the ‘an economy of communion’, doing an excellently professional job, while giving extraordinary testimony to the value of solidarity.

The parish community, small in number, is beginning to organize itself again after the pandemic, just like the small seed referred to in the gospel.

As I finish this text I am about to travel with Br. Colombanus to the interior of the country.  We will be guests of the Brazilian Capuchin friars in Santa Clara (centre) and Manzanillo (east) for the next two weeks, in order to get to know the Cuban reality outside the capital and to experience pastoral endeavours in other places.

In the pastoral project of the Delegation of Cuba, in fact, there is a desire to open a new presence in another part of the country, where pastoral needs are great and human resources are lacking.

Listening to the missionary friars, one is filled with hope and the desire to ‘take a risk’, to follow the signs of the movement of the Spirit of the Lord, harvesting new fruit with them, after years of suffering and exhaustion in fidelity to their faith.

I have been greatly helped in my discernment process by very concrete criteria shared with me by the friars, the fruit of hard earned experiences on the ground: not to expect too many pastoral results, to creatively search for ways to respond in a very fluid religious context, permeated by syncretism (influences of other religions, particularly African animism), to be patient while living in a very challenging political and social environment, to deal with customs that require a strong and resolute human and spiritual maturity, to be able to adapt to unexpected changes in programs, and especially very illuminating for me, to ‘sit down and evaluate’ as Jesus tells us.

To be living all of this brings me to thank the Lord for the generosity of the friars and the men and women who dedicate their lives to God’s Kingdom.

Throughout this time, I am personally living this experience with a sense of deep gratitude, even though it is ‘uncomfortable’ to step away from oneself, or as the expression goes, from my ‘comfort zone’; needing freedom to listen to what is happening within me and around me; while allowing myself to be accompanied in prayer.

Br. Matteo Marcheselli ofm

St. Francis Province, Assisi