The Dublin Franciscan in Cuba

By John Scally

The Irish Church has always sent priests and nuns to work as missionaries abroad. A Dublin Franciscan priest is about to begin a new chapter of missionary activity by opening a new mission to Cuba, a country slowly emerging from the shadow of its long-serving ruler Fidel Castro.

Already, Fr. Gearoid O’ Connaire is facing a glitch

“I’d like to share some experiences that I have had during these short few weeks. It is also rare to hear about El Salvador in the Irish media, so I take this opportunity to inform you about some of the positive and, indeed, some of the very challenging aspects of life in El Salvador today.”

For Gearoid his time in El Salvador feels like coming home

“One of the highlights was to celebrate Mass over three weekends in churches now belonging to two parishes, which in my time was just one. While I was there over 20 years ago, we managed to procure the land and build a provisional temple, but the deeds were difficult to register due to all sorts of complications. Fr. Orland, parish priest, eventually built an ecstatically beautiful, large and practical church.

He also built a house for the community as well as meeting rooms for parish activities. It’s not for nothing Italian missionaries have a reputation of arriving on this earth with a brick in their mouths! Over the years, the people saved substantial amounts of money through local fundraising activities, particularly through food sales, excursions and individual plan giving, known as ‘one day of your monthly salary for the Lord’. I presume the additional finances needed to conclude the project were provided by the Italian Church.

“After the Mass, I ate ‘pupusas’ with members of the choir, readers, altar servers, ministers of the Eucharist and some of the laity. According to an online dictionary, a pupusa ‘is a thick, griddled corn cake with a savoury filling (cheese, beans, pig skin or a combination). This popular native street food of El Salvador is made using a yellow corn flour called ‘masa harina’, which literally translates to ‘dough flour’. It is typically accompanied by curtido (chopped flavoured cabbage), and tomato sauce.’

Gearoid is feeling energised by his visit

“I was struck by the enthusiasm with which people collectively answered the prayers of the Mass and participated in the singing. In all of the liturgies I attended, the overall sense is one of jubilant celebration of the Lord’s day. Although the duration of the Mass is shorter than I remember, it still lasts between an hour and an hour and a half, with lots of notices related to upcoming church activities. Many of the key laity are still involved and like myself a lot greyer and less energetic than when we first began to mission this new part of the parish.

Additionally, there are many new members who have become involved due to continuing missionary efforts, to reach out to new families and lapsed Catholics during the one or two parish missions organised every year. It consists of visits to families by members of the community who go two by two during a week long mission. They meet members of a family to pray the scriptures and reflect on some implications for their lives.

At the end of the week, before the mission concludes, all visited families are invited to assist at a concluding liturgy, usually celebrated on the street. The hope is that some of these families will continue to meet, assisted by a member of the community, during which time they receive Christian formation and hopefully become involved in the evangelization of the parish. Many active members additionally become involved in other community organisations including school boards, sports organisations, local community organisations and political parties of all affiliations.

The overall objective of evangelization is to share the good news of Jesus Christ and His Kingdom with whoever is willing to listen and support them on their journey of faith and discipleship.”

There was an unexpected turn of events for Gearoid

“The San Bartolo parish is now ministered to by a diocesan priest since the Franciscans left in July of 2017. I concelebrated Mass with him the following Sunday. To my surprise, before the conclusion of the Mass, he invited me to kneel in front of the altar. He prayed over me and missioned me in the name of the community to go to Cuba.

It was a spirit inspired moment. I realised I was being sent by the same community who had received me, almost to the month, 20 years ago. He invited me back two weeks later to celebrate Masses in the parish as he had to go on his annual retreat. I jokingly suggested that his prayer and missioning were somewhat ineffective as we were all still languishing in a ‘visa no man’s land’! Subsequently, the director of the mission of the Order informed us that we would probably have to wait much longer than originally anticipated for our Cuban visas. In the meantime, I continued to enjoy my unexpected additional time in El Salvador.

“After the ceremony, I visited the Poor Clare Monastery nearby. I believe their prayerful support is vital for all our missionary initiatives. In fact, my father used to go on a regular basis to the Poor Clares in Dublin to ask them to pray for special intentions. I remind my family that many of us were on that list.

“Providentially, I met a Salvadorian sister recently, who has just returned from Cuba after living and working there for the past year. She will stay in Salvador for a while, as her father in unwell. I could pick her brains on several practical themes. Nothing like chatting with someone who has first-hand experience. She spoke of the friendliness of the people, what to expect in relation to food, travel, the church in Havana, some of the challenges and especially the importance of prudence in speech and gesture!

She expressed how well organised religious life is in Cuba and everyone tries to support one another. A Jesuit, born in Cuba, but who had lived in Haiti for many years, returned recently. He shared how much Cuba had changed and he, like all foreigners, had to undergo an inculturation process in his own country. Not unlike most Latin countries, but particularly in Cuba, one must intuit what is being said rather than receiving direct comments! Whatever is written or said must be done so with the expectation that it could be read, heard or seen by others.”

Gearoid is using his time in El Salvador to plan for Cuba

“One of the three Franciscans, the Cuban, responding to my email enquiring about practicalities, replied that the most important thing to bring with us is hope and enthusiasm! I was expecting him to outline a list of material needs!

“The other three friars going to Cuba are from Guatemala, Brazil and Poland. When all four of us eventually arrive, we will immediately apply for residency through the archdiocese. With residency one can apply for a telephone number, purchase goods at the price for locals and receive free health care etc. Slowly but surely, we will begin to organise ourselves.

“On arrival, at least as part of the original plan, we would receive an orientation for about two months, dealing with the reality of the church and country, as well as reminders about how to be good missionaries.

This will also give us an opportunity to get to know one another. I imagine we will spend the first year listening and conversing with as many people as possible. One of us will be named parish priest of a small parish, formally run by the friars, but has only been attended to from the place where the other friars live, about 20 minutes away on foot.”