Saturday, October 27, 2007

Why Father Félix Varela Has Not Been Elevated to Sainthood and Never Will Be


515 years after the introduction of Catholism in Cuba, there is still no Cuban saint, or, rather, the Catholic Church has yet to conclude officially that a single Cuban has met all requisites of sainthood. Since the pope recently eliminated purgatory (or limbo) that leaves only one other place for departed Cubans to moor. Of course, the Church herself admits that she does not know the identity of all her saints nor could canonize all if she did. So it is conceivable, indeed, even probable, that there might be a Cuban or two in the heavenly legions whose recognition has escaped the Church.

The most famous Cuban postulant for sainthood is the Venerable Father Félix Varela, who deserves to be not only a saint but a doctor of the Church. On his visit to Cuba in 1998 Pope John Paul II prayed before the urn containing Varela's ashes in the Great Hall of Havana University but did not canonize him. This was highly unusual because the culmination of papal visits to foreign countries was always the canonization of a native son. Cuba, which had no native saint and could have used one after decades of official atheism, was denied its most fervent wish to embrace Varela as that saint. John Paul II sprinkled the world liberally with saints, creating more in his pontificate than all previous popes in the 2000-year history of the Church. Most of the new saints were Italian (as usual), followed closely by Poles (a coincidence, no doubt) and Spaniards. John Paul II even managed to elevate 300 Japanese martyrs to sainthood, which was probably every Japanese Catholic who ever lived (we exaggerate to make a point).

But no Cuban was judged worthy of saintly investiture, not even Varela, especially not Varela, because he thought too much and wrote too much. His ashes, remember, are at the University of Havana, not the Cathedral of Havana. The Catholic Church prefers saints that don't leave a paper trail. Fray José López Pitiera, who will become the first Cuban to be beatified tomorrow in St. Peter's Square, was martyred at 25 and left behind not a single letter or note and scarcely a signature; everything was consumed in the Spanish Civil War with his life. Such a candidate is the ideal candidate for sainthood, literally heaven sent. Blind faith always trumps informed faith. That is one of the lessons of the New Testament which the Church takes most to heart.

Varela's faith and pity are beyond question, as is the heroic virtue he displayed throughtout his life. His writings have been picked apart for decades by theologians who have never been able to find even one line that deviated from Catholic dogma. He may have been canonical but he was also a humanist, and, dare I say, a freethinker. Varela was as much a child of the Enlightenment as he was a Scholastic, a patriot the same as a churchman, a Cuban no less than a Catholic. And there, as they say, is the rub. The patriot cancels out the priest. He must have been a very great patriot indeed to cancel out the exemplary priest.

Exiled from Cuba and sentenced to death by Spain for having voted at the Cortes (Spanish parlement) to depose the pig-king Ferdinand VII, Varela fled to New York, the first Cuban exile. There he eventually became Vicar General of the New York Diocese. His special apostolate was to New York's recently arrived Irish immigrants, who were as detested and persecuted in the 19th century as Hispanics are today in this country. Varela built the first Catholic schools for them (open to both sexes, for the first time); the first mutual aid society; the first orphanages; and the first parish to cater to their spiritual and material needs, in the notorious Five Corners section were most of them lived. The Irish clamored for Varela to be their bishop, but Spain vetoed his selection because Varela continued to agitate for Cuba's independence from New York, creating, through his patriotic writings, a distinctive Cuban consciousness and nationality. Martí himself journeyed to Varela's grave, then in St. Augustine, FL, to pay homage to "the man who taught us to think" and consecrate his work of liberation to him.

Some believe that it is the Spanish hierarchy which is now blocking Varela's elevation to sainthood as it once vetoed him as bishop of New York. The former home of the Inquisition could not forgive the Cuban priest who thundered against it in parlement until it was abolished; nor the relentless champion of emancipation, which would have threatened the interests of the Church in Cuba, where it was the largest private landholder. Varela wanted to purify Spain, its politics and its religion. Only if he had attacked bullfighting would he have made himself more odious to Spaniards. All these bones of contention have long been buried and forgotten. But not the animus which they provoked in reactionary elements in the Church.

So it appears that whether it is because he is too wise, too liberal, too unlike those who opposed him in life and now oppose him in death, Félix Varela will never be canonized. In short, he is too great to be a saint. Perhaps it is just as well. His country and his church must be worthy of him before they can claim him.


POSTSCRIPT:

Mi Tres Cubano said...
Well, it is not so much that he had a paper trail, but his paper trail was highly politicized and applicable for today. Whereas San Antonio María Claret, who was the Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, left a tremendous paper trail but was careful about leaving too much of his political thoughts around.

A canonization of Varela is possible. And I pray his novena when I can, as well as pray for his beatification. The problem is that so long as Varela is used as a political weapon (particularly against castro) the Vatican will use caution in pushing his cause. Not so much because they are for or against castro, but rather, it is done to keep the focus and motive for the canonization clear. Chances are, we may see a San [Félix] Varela only after a Cuba Libre.

It is this same political weight that I bet is slowing the process for JPII down as well.
10/29/2007 2:11 AM


Manuel A.Tellechea said...
mi tres cubano:

So what you are saying, in effect, is that the Vatican does not want Varela to be used as a "weapon" to win Cuba's freedom. In that case, nothing has changed in 175 years. Claret had a great advantage over Varela: he was Queen Isabel's II confessor. He was also a Spaniard. His ministry in Cuba was heroic and beneficial to the Cuban people, but he was not born in Cuba and was never really embraced by Cubans as a native saint. The same may happen with Blessed Fray José López Pitiera, who although born in Cuba returned to Spain with his parents at age 5 and never saw Cuba again. Of course, if he had returned to Cuba or availed himself of his Cuban citizenship, he would not be a martyr.

I disagree with you in respect to John Paul II's canonization. He is definitely on the "fast track." In his case, the Church does want to use his popularity on her own behalf. If Princess Diana had been a Catholic (which, of course, was legally impossible as the wife of the heir apparent to the British throne), she may just have beaten the late pope to sainthood. After all, there are now more Catholics in England and Scotland than Anglicans for the first time since Henry VIII split the Church.

As for John Paul II, I hope the Vatican will consider his praise of "Che" Guevara when debating his cause. Of course, they never took into consideration Mother Teresa's praise of Castro.

While declining to beatify Varela, John Paul II did beatify Pope Pius IX, who blessed the Spanish troops that fought against the mambises and called theirs (the Spaniards') a "holy cause."

John Paul gave a "push" to practically all his immediate papal predecessors on the road to sainthood except the one who was unquestionably a saint and wellspring of miracles — Pope Pope Pius XII. Although John Paul II believed in Pius XII's cause above all others, he did not have the moral courage to advance it and confront so such calumny and vilification. The sun left its orbit in Pius XII's presence but that was not enough to overcome the world's obliquity.

Sainthood today has become a funtion (or weapon) of Vatican politics. Maybe it always was.

14 comments:

Charlie Bravo said...

During the time I lived in Florida, I went a few times to Father Varela's original entombment, at the Tolomato cemetery. It's the only walk-in structure in that rather modest cemetery.
The simple chapel was erected by his flock from Saint Augustine, where his ministry and educative work sat precedent. By the entrance to the chapen, on the left side jamb its door, there's a symbol which many have mistaken for an occultist reference: a bat with widespread wings. Instead, the bat is a reference to the soul who does most of his good deeds in silence and undercover, without egotistical fanfarre.

Manuel A.Tellechea said...

Charlie:

Long before Varela's remains were transferred to Havana, he was "evicted" from his mausoleum so that a local bishop could be buried there instead.

Charlie Bravo said...

He was placed at that moment by the entrance of the mausoleum, under the bat....

Vana said...

Good post Manuel, no matter he is not canonized, he still is our very own Saint, for I at least view him as such.

Mi Tres Cubano said...

Well, it is not so much that he had a paper trail, but his paper trail was highly politicized and applicable for today. Whereas San Antonio Maria Claret, who was the Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, left a tremendous paper trail but was careful about leaving too much of his political thoughts around.

A Canonization of Varela is possible. And I pray his novena when I can, as well as. pray for his beatification. The problem is that so long as Varela is used as a political weapon (particularly against castro) the Vatican will use caution in pushing his cause. Not so much because they are for or against castro, but rather, it is done to keep the focus and motive for the canonization clear. Chances are, we may see a San Varela only after a Cuba Libre.

It is this same political weight that I bet is slowing the process for JPII down as well.

Manuel A.Tellechea said...

mi tres cubano:

So what you are saying, in effect, is that the Vatican does not want Varela to be used as a "weapon" to win Cuba's freedom. In that case, nothing has changed in 175 years. Claret had a great advantage over Varela: he was Queen Isabel's II confessor. He was also a Spaniard. His ministry in Cuba was heroic and beneficial to the Cuban people, but he was not born in Cuba and was never really embraced by Cubans as a native saint. The same may happen with Blessed Fray José López Pitiera, who although born in Cuba returned to Spain with his parents at age 5 and never saw Cuba again. Of course, if he had returned to Cuba or availed himself of his Cuban citizenship, he would not be a martyr.

I disagree with you in respect to John Paul II's canonization. He is definitely on the "fast track." In his case, the Church does want to use his popularity on her own behalf. If Princess Diana had been a Catholic (which, of course, was legally impossible as the wife of the heir apparent to the British throne), she may just have beaten the late pope to sainthood. After all, there are now more Catholics in England and Scotland than Anglicans for the first time since Henry VIII split the Church.

As for John Paul II, I hope the Vatican will consider his praise of "Che" Guevara when debating his cause. Of course, they never took into consideration Mother Teresa's praise of Castro.

While declining to beatify Varela, John Paul II did beatify Pope Pius IX, who blessed the Spanish troops that fought against the mambises and called theirs (the Spaniards') a "holy cause."

John Paul gave a "push" to practically all his immediate papal predecessors on the road to sainthood except the one who was unquestionably a saint and wellspring of miracles — Pope Pope Pius XII. Although John Paul II believed in Pius XII's cause above all others, he did not have the moral courage to advance it and confront so such calumny and vilification. The sun left its orbit in Pius XII's presence but that was not enough to overcome the world's obliquity.

Sainthood today has become a funtion (or weapon) of Vatican politics. Maybe it always was.

Mi Tres Cubano said...

"As for John Paul II, I hope the Vatican will consider his praise of "Che" Guevara when debating his cause. Of course, they never took into consideration Mother Teresa's praise of Castro."

Well, I don't know about Mother Teresa praising castro, but I find it hard to believe that JPII praised che. Especially, since he was very much anti-liberation theology –a theology that espouses marxism with Catholicism and touts che and his writings. Proof of this is found if you simply google something like: "Leonardo Boff and JPII," or perhaps JPII with liberation theology, communism, marxism, etc... This is quite the claim!

I'm interested in reading your primary sources in regards to Mother Theresa and JPII. Can you please direct me to sources where I can read more about this.

As for politics, please keep in mind that there is a difference between the politics of the Church, and international politics. International politics is something that I am sure you are aware of, and so I won't humor you. However, judging from what you have written let me explain how Church politics are a bit different.

Especially since 1965, the Vatican has made a great effort to not mix international politics with Catholicism. If you ever do any research on the religious martyrs of the Spanish Civil war, many of these canonized martyrs are not remembered for there anti-communist stance, but rather for their diligence to their vows and their faith. Though, politically conservative, emphasis is placed on the challenging of their faith rather than their position against liberals. The Vatican doesn't like to endorse political parties, and doesn't let political ideology slip easily into the Church's credo.

What is true for Varela is true for any politically charged candidate for the sainthood. If they represent too much of a particular political stance, then they are delayed in their canonization until their political representation dies off. Oscar Romero has had a tremendous push/endorsement towards canonization by the people of El Salvador, however, Romero has taken forever to even be considered for canonization because he is well loved and idealized by the left. The same is true for Dorothy Day, who was the founder of the Catholic Workers Movement. Dorothy Day is so associated with communism thought that, regardless of her recorded comments against communism, she is not as quickly pushed along to canonization (not as quick as the more politically neutral Escriva.)

Left or right, the Vatican doesn't like to endorse a political ideology.

Instead of endorsing a particular party, the Vatican likes to put on the fast track to sainthood figures that did't make tremendous political waves, but were still tremendous examples of faith: St. Faustina, St. Padre Pio, and St. Jose Maria Escriva to name a recent few. And when it did skim the arena of international politics, it was usually done with a Judeo-Christian dialogue in mind: St. Katherine Drexel and St. Maximilian Kolbe are two examples.

Anyhow, the Vatican has been criticized by both political liberals and political conservatives, and quite frankly if you do the research, that's were the Vatican likes to be when it comes to international politics –on the outside looking in. (If anything, this is where I have problem, and wished the Vatican would do more in chastising injustice.)

I'm sure you'll have much to reply with this comment, but please remember my request to direct me to where I can read more about Mother Theresa's endorsement of castro, and JPII's praise of che. I'd like to read more on this –primary sources if possible.

(By the way, one Cuban figure, who isn't as politically charged as Varela, but would make a huge impact on Cuba if canonized is Obispo Eduardo Boza Masvidal. Granted if one were to read his Ideario, there would be much mention of politics, however, like the religious martyrs of the Spanish Civil war, his writings can be read in the light of faith and not solely politics. Moreover his image isn't really one representing a political party/movement, but an image of one denouncing religious oppression. If he made it to heaven, and if there is a big enough push, then I do not doubt a possible canonization. A shame there hasn't been more of a push.)

Manuel A.Tellechea said...

mi tres cubano:

John Paul II praised "Che" Guevara during his trip to Cuba in 1998 and his words were reproduced in the Observatore Romano at the time. I have in fact quoted the exact words on this blog, which, as I recall, repulsed all who read them. I will search the archives for them. Really, I should keep them always at hand, perhaps even pin them to my coat as a reminder that it is possible to lose all claims to respect with a few ill-considered and opportunistic words. As for Mother Teresa, she visited Cuba many times and showered Castro with praise every time. Back in the 80s, I dedicated several articles to her crush on Fidel. I will find them and reproduce them here. I must be one of the few people in the world who genuinely feels repulsion at the sight of her.

Boza Masdival, sad to say, reached an accommodation at the end with the Castro regime and returned to Cuba. How tragic to see a man deny the entire tenor of his life at the end! He reminds me of Heredia, not Varela. I should rather see "El Padre Gasolina" canonized (a popular Cuban priest from the early 1900s who begot a dozen children in Jesús del Monte).

I must disagree with you in respect to Escriva; no man was more a political animal than him. Let us hope that other persistent rumors about him are not true. A century's delay in his canonization, or two or three, would have done much to subsume the present controversy.

Besides Varela, there is only one man that I should like to see elevated to the sainthood — G.K. Chesterton.

You are right: the Vatican is determined to canonize every Catholic who saved a Jew from the Holocaust, and that is not a bad thing. Perhaps eventually they'll get to Pius XII or Francisco Franco, who saved the most.

Asymmetric said...

1. Limbo was an possible answer to the question of what happens to unbaptized babies. It was never dogma like purgatory.

2. Saints are people the Church is certain resides in heaven. The Church decides based on evidence for miracles. It's not like a Lifetime Achievement Award. Of course, there are more saints, but the Church doesn't have evidence.

It must sound strange for people outside the Church, but if you believe, that's the way it is.

Manuel A.Tellechea said...

asymmetric:

1). Dogma is what the pope says is dogma. Since the pope was declared infallible in the 19th century his will has always translated into dogma.

2). The beatified also reside in the happiness of heaven with the saints. You are right: sainthood should not be a Lifetime Achievement Award. Sadly, that is what John Paul II made it in his own quest for canonization.

Nothing about Catholicism sounds "strange" to me.

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