Yesterday, at 76, Monsignor Carlos Manuel de Céspedes y García-Menocal, Vicar of Havana and one of the leading figures of the Catholic Church in Cuba, passed away.
A descendant of two of the most important Cuban families, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes was noted for his humanistic work throughout his career, after being ordained a priest in Rome in 1961.
It was not necessary to be Catholic, even taking leaps of faith, to recognize the value of this man, who dedicated his life to serving his brothers and build bridges of dialogue between generations and ideologies.
Neighborhoods like Santa Fé, Punta Brava and Guatao, all in Havana, were lucky to have him here. There surely, he will be remembered in a special way. For it was in those places where he poured all his love for others.
It is also clear that classrooms in the Havana Seminar will feel his absence, since he left his mark there in a special way. Cuba, in general, loses a high carat humanistic man convinced that dialogue and respect for otherness are an unavoidable way, one of those indispensable men to build a country to the extent of its people.
Slightly less than two years ago in the first edition of our print magazine (March 2012), OnCuba spoke with Monsignor Carlos Manuel de Céspedes. In tribute to this great man today, we reproduce the interview.
Honoring its name: Charity
Monsignor Carlos Manuel de Céspedes García Menocal, vicar general of Havana, has two amply earned reputations: being a man of integrity and a wonderful conversationalist. Descendant of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, considered the Father of the Cuban Nation, is, above all, one of the most outstanding personalities of Cuban culture of the last half century. This interview, however brief, confirms this: in a few pages he shows his wit, erudition and faith, all poured into a single passion: Cuba.
400 years ago, the image of the Virgin of Charity was found by for poor workers in Cuba. That is a beautiful metaphor for how the Cuban people found the image of the virgin who will later became Patroness of Cuba. What else can you tell us about that meeting?
It is a beautiful metaphor with a complex history.
In the seventeenth century, Cardinal Cisneros organized a small network of charity hospitals in the ways of Spain, and they all had a picture saying: Our Lady of Charity.
They say that before the founding of the image of the Charity in Cuba, the Virgin had reached the island in the hands of a man who went on a Spanish ship that sank. He was welcomed by an indigenous community, and that image-not preserved to our days, was venerated as an Indian totem and thus expanded the worship of the Virgin without knowing it was the Virgin of Charity.
Thus, the founding of the image in Cuba, by workers who were looking for salt and the boy who accompanied them, didn’t sit in a strange land.
The image was taken for a short time to Barajagua and then to the place where the copper mines was. From there it began a story that was admitted to the cult of the Virgin of Our Lady of Charity, to which was added immediately the word Cobre (Copper), by the name of the town.
Another very interesting topic, which is not much dealt with, is the material composition of the image and its meaning. Twenty years ago the then archbishop of Santiago de Cuba sent to restore the image of the Virgin and to the amazement of the restorer, it was found that the face was not wood, but a hard and varnished pasta he thought it was corn. That suggests that the image was not made in Spain but in Mexico or Central America, and probably came from a ship going or returning from Mexico to Spain and had sunk there.
It is very clear that the image of the Virgin appeared in Cuba in the place where it is said, and that is the same as it is today in the Sanctuary of El Cobre, but as to its origin there are things we do not know yet.
To understand the cult of the Virgin of Charity is useful for those who have no religious training, to know the role of the Virgin Mary in the mission of the Church.
For us the Virgin Mary is a woman chosen by God to be the mother of Jesus Christ and, therefore, is adorned with special spiritual character. Its mission is not only having raised Jesus Christ, as any mother raising her son, but to accompany him and the apostles. For us Mary is a Santa, a human being, not a god, therefore we don’t worship her-we worship only God, but we worship her in a very special way. She is more than any other saint by the grace she had and her closeness with Jesus.
Mary, in the invocation of El Cobre, has also veneration in Cuban religions of African origin. Also, the first freed slaves, who were in the area of El Cobre, gave their thanks to the Virgin for deliverance.
I do not know how the Virgin of Charity was joined with Oshun , and I think no one knows. This syncretism is purely visual, because as content as a concept, they have nothing to do with each other. Oshun is the Venus of the Yoruba religion, sensual woman that conquest, and the Virgin is the opposite. Many people have hypothesized that it was because of the beauty, because there was no other Christian image as beautiful and as Oshun was the most beautiful women of the Yoruba pantheon then the Virgin was turned into Oshun .
It is said that Carlos Manuel de Céspedes needed a piece of blue cloth for the Cuban flag and took the canopy of the Virgin that he had at home. Also Maceo, when he was baptized, receive as one of his names the one of Our Lady of Charity. Those were great figures of our history, but what do you think should be reciprocally the cult of the Virgin of Charity and the Cuban popular patriotism thinks?
I believe that devotion to the Virgin of Charity has been a uniting way, congregant, in Cuba, beyond the differences of any kind. That is the meaning of the gift that makes Hemingway, the Nobel Prize of his medal to its Cobre Sanctuary, as a way to deliver it to the Cuban people.
Remember that the Cubans were not allowed to go to the taking of Santiago de Cuba when the war ended in 1898. Then they went to El Cobre and there they celebrated the independence.
In the Republic, for the efforts of America Arias, a parish in Havana was named Our Lady of Charity. Then Mariana Seva, wife of Mario García Menocal, with the signing of the petition by the mambises veterans, requested the appointment of Mary as patroness of Cuba. At that time, around 1915, Benedict XV makes the proclamation.
Therefore, the devotion to the Virgin of Charity is linked to Spain in the late Middle Ages and the beginning of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the development of the Cuban nationality in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as well as the struggles for Cuban independence.
Benedict XV proclaimed the Virgin of Charity, patroness of Cuba and now Benedict XVI comes to the Island to the 400th anniversary of its founding. How do you live the next visit of the Pope?
The Pope’s visit to a country is always a support, a great joy; even if a line of theology that is not the one you share the most, because it is independent of the recognition of his authority in the church. You cannot fail to recognize that kind of love, affection, sympathy for him. So it is always a pleasure to have him in your country.
Also, there are chances that in the Havana Mass the Pope proclaims venerable Father Felix Varela. That opens the way to when their performance is recognized a miracle, be declared blessed, though, as a friend says, we might say, metaphorically, that the Father Felix Varela already has a miracle Cuba.
Do you think there is a message of Our Lady to the current time in Cuba?
It will always be unity; the Cubans do to honor his name: Charity. That’s fraternal and serene love, unity, trust, optimism, resignation to confrontation. It has everything to do with devotion to the Virgin of Charity, and that would be the message.
THE INTERVIEW WAS MADE BY JULIO CESAR GUANCHE IN THE SAN AUGUSTINE PARISH WHERE FATHER Carlos Manuel de Cespedes LIVED, LOCATED IN PLAYA MUNICIPALITY IN HAVANA