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VARELA-VENERABLE (UPDATED) Apr-10-2012 (1,000 words) With photos posted March 16 and 23 and April 9. xxxn

Now-venerable Cuban priest's role as bridge-builder grows, bishop says

Father Felix Varela is depicted in a painting from the Felix Varela Foundation of New York. The Cuban-born priest, known as a promoter of human rights, freedom for slaves and independence for Cuba from Spain, immigrated to the United States in 1823. He founded Transfiguration Church in New York and served as vicar general of the Archdiocese of New York. The Cuban bishops initiated his cause for sainthood in the 1980s. (CNS/courtesy of Felix Varela Foundation of New York

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Father Felix Varela was a bridge-builder among Cubans and among Americans in his own 19th century, and with the Vatican declaring him venerable, the Cuban priest becomes relevant in that way for new generations, said the vice postulator of his sainthood cause.

Auxiliary Bishop Octavio Cisneros of Brooklyn, N.Y., a Cuban-American who is shepherding Father Varela's cause, told Catholic News Service that he was elated by the April 8 announcement of the Vatican's declaration.

The declaration recognizes that the priest lived heroic Christian virtues. It is the first official step on a path to sainthood.

It was announced on Easter Sunday by the New York and Miami archdioceses, where there are many proponents of Father Varela's cause, and the Diocese of St. Augustine, Fla., where he died, and by the Cuban bishops' conference.

A statement from the Cuban bishops' conference called Father Varela "a worthy Cuban priest, exemplary in Christian and priestly virtues and eminent in his patriotism."

Bishop Cisneros told CNS in an April 10 phone interview that he had expected the declaration to be announced by Pope Benedict XVI during his March 26-28 visit to Cuba and wasn't certain why that didn't happen.

"It might have been a snafu," he suggested. The Congregation for Saint's Causes issued its decree March 14, though it wasn't made public until the announcement by the dioceses.

But having the declaration made public at Easter was "for the purposes of the church in the United States, even better," said Bishop Cisneros. "It gave us the opportunity to say who Father Varela was."

Born in Havana in 1788 and ordained at age 23, Father Varela was an outspoken supporter of Cuban independence. His opposition to the Spanish monarchy led to his exile in 1823.

He went to the United States, where he served as a priest in New York and became vicar general of what was then a diocese. He founded Transfiguration Church in what is now Manhattan's Chinatown. And, although other Cuban exiles -- most of whom were well-off -- lived in New York at the time, Father Varela is known for his devoted pastoral care of the city's poorest residents, particularly the Irish immigrants.

The priest became ill and moved to St. Augustine. He was familiar with the area because he had spent time there as a child with his grandfather, who had been a fort commander in what at the time was a Spanish possession. He died in Florida in 1853.

After the declaration of venerable, the second step in the sainthood process is beatification, and the third is canonization. In general, each of the last two steps needs a miracle to be accepted by the church as having occurred through the intercession of the prospective saint.

"We will pray for and wait for a miracle through the intercession of Father Varela," said Bishop Cisneros.

A statement from the Cuban bishops' conference said they would "beseech God that in the near future we may know of a miracle through his intercession which, once established, would enable the proclamation of Blessed Father Varela as an immediate step to canonization."

During Pope Benedict's trip to Cuba, he praised Father Varela as "'a shining example' of the contributions a person of faith can make in building a more just society," noted Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski in a press release posted by the archdiocese. "Varela in his own words reminds us that 'there is no authentic fatherland without virtue.'"

The March 14 decree from the Congregation for Saints' Causes declaring Father Varela venerable cited the priest's own words at a time of upheaval in Cuba that ultimately led to the nation's independence: "I want to be a soldier of Christ. My purpose is not to kill men, but to save souls."

One measure of his lasting impact on Cuba is that the day the declaration was issued by the Vatican, The Washington Post featured a story about a recent program at a former seminary that now houses the Father Felix Varela Cultural Center in Havana. The Post described "a hall packed with professors, dissidents, clergy, bloggers, leftists, diplomats. The subject matter once unthinkable."

The event was a talk featuring Miami millionaire Carlos Saladrigas, a Cuban exile who has gone from being a hard-liner on Cuban isolation to encouraging dialogue, the Post reported.

In a recent interview with Catholic News Service, the Varela Center's cultural director, Gustavo Andujar, described such programs as a fitting tribute to the center's namesake because he was part of early discussions of Cuban independence, some of which were held in the then-seminary that now bears Father Varela's name.

Father Varela is not only a model of holiness for Cuban Catholics; both the communist government and its opponents invoke him as an inspiration for their actions.

When Blessed John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, then-President Fidel Castro gave the pope a biography of Father Varela as a gift.

That same year, a member of the Christian Liberation Movement began what became known as the Varela Project, an effort aimed at promoting democratic reforms, including greater freedom of speech and of the press, free elections, religious freedom, the ability to begin private businesses and the release of political prisoners.

Cuba's communist government cracked down on dissidents in 2003, arresting dozens of the people involved in the Varela Project. The wives and mothers of those arrested then formed the "Damas de Blanco," or Ladies in White, a group of women who, dressed in white, attend Mass together on Sundays in the Church of St. Rita of Cascia in Havana and then march through the nearby streets.

The last of their relatives were released in 2011, but the women say they continue to experience surveillance and harassment and they want to draw attention to the plight of other political prisoners.

Father Varela's remains were transferred to Havana in 1911 and placed in the main hall of the University of Havana.

The Cuban bishops opened his sainthood cause in the 1980s.

- - -

Contributing to this story was Cindy Wooden in Rome.


Copyright (c) 2012 Catholic News Service/USCCB. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed.
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