At the end of September Archbishop Dionisio García of Santiago de Cuba, the president of the Cuban Catholic bishops’ conference, was in Chicago for Catholic Extension’s announcement of financial support to build churches in Cuba. While he was here, the archbishop sat down with Julio Rangel, editor of Chicago Católico, to talk about the church in Cuba today. Catholic New World: Have you seen things change at all since relaxed relations between the United States and Cuba were announced? Archbishop Dionisio García: Yes, you can tell that relations are more relaxed, as much in the language as in the day-to-day relations. I think there is greater ease, better exchanges, between the two nations. A greater number of North Americans are coming to Cuba for different reasons. And there is not even the slightest doubt that it contributes to the gradual relaxation of relations. I think it occurred first at the state level. It is still not perfect, but it’s a step-by-step process. You can’t wave a magic wand and solve all the problems of relations that were broken for decades. Therefore, I think that there is better exchange, better reconciliation and a better understanding of reality. Catholic New World: In a message to young people celebrating World Youth Day in Cuba, Pope Francis sent a message that said, “Young people, do not be afraid of anything, be free from the shackles of the world and proclaim to everyone — to the ill, the elderly, the sad — that the church is crying together with them and that Jesus can give them new life, revive them.” What is the state of young people in Cuba today? Archbishop García: Well, recall that the phrase “Be not afraid!” was coined by Pope John Paul II: “Do not be afraid to accept Jesus Christ.” He said it in other places, but he also said it in Cuba. What Pope Francis did was to repeat it and bring it into the present. I see today’s youth as being more prepared. Cubans have always been entrepreneurial people, but they seem to be more determined; they are taking control of their own lives. I think that the pope did indeed use this phrase as an invitation, an acknowledgement that young Cubans need to take control of their future with every passing day. On the other hand as well, for today’s youth, the relations with the United States, the changes in Cuba — which are slow, but changes, nonetheless — have opened Cubans’ window on the world a bit more. That allows them to gain a kind of discretion, information and education that perhaps could not have had before. That expands their perspective. But it also creates in them a kind of discomfort because they would like the changes to happen more quickly. However, many don’t see it that way, and because of this there is a measure of hopelessness, and feeling of overwhelmed. Many of them are inclined to leave the country. They are seeking other horizons, other places where they will have more opportunities. On the other hand, life goes on as always, as we ourselves say. The struggle, family, studies, work. In Cuba, a phrase we’ve coined is “to struggle to survive.” People are struggling to live. Catholic New World: Has respect for basic the human life of all of Cuba’s people changed? Archbishop García: You’re aware that the topic of human rights is very complex, much discussed and very broad. There are civil rights, the basic rights of people. In Cuba, they try to guarantee education, medication, health. These services have suffered a lot. The entire population has the right to have them, but it has suffered greatly due to economic problems. These services cost money. While efforts are being made, there is still the economic crisis… Regarding civil rights, let’s remember that Cuba is a one-party society, and everything operates on that basis. Catholic New World: Demographically speaking, can the Cuban church provide for the needs of the Catholic community? Archbishop García: We’ve gone 55 years without building a new church. The neighborhoods have grown. Cities have increased, and many people have come from the countryside to the city, and in those areas there are no Catholic churches. What happens is that people meet in homes for Houses of Prayer. Therefore, we are asking to be able to build churches in some of these slums. Catholic New World: What are the challenges of the church in Cuba as it stands today? Archbishop García: Being an evangelist in the midst of a changing society, in a society in which, for a long time, it has not been possible for the church to express itself to the larger masses, to the people in general. How can we ransom, how can we strengthen, the spontaneous historical relationship that has existed between our people and those whose religious beacon was the Catholic Church? That is the main challenge, because that is the mission of the church: to evangelize. There also are other challenges: to walk with the people through daily life by means of charity and service, which the church allows everyone to do, regardless of religion, to try to reach the most needy. Create awareness, be alert to situations, to dangers, that we might be faced with. Try to promote reconciliation among our people. Catholic New World: Do you have anything you’d like to say to the Cubans living in Chicago today? Archbishop García: They should remain firm in their faith and testify in Chicago to their faith. Remember that you should live out your faith wherever you go, independent of the organizational system of the country. Christians should always be witnesses to the Gospel. And of course, they should not forget Cuba. Catholic New World: Regarding the three-year project with Catholic Extension to repair the infrastructure of churches, do you know how many buildings will benefit? Archbishop García: I can’t say how many churches, because each diocese is going to work on its own projects. Moreover, it’s over the course of three years. What I can tell you is that it will be very beneficial because it will allow us to have funds available to be able to undertake projects that otherwise would have taken much longer (if we were able to do them at all). I’m very grateful to the Catholic Extension project because it seems to be an organization that has well-defined aid goals, which I determined at the meeting we had over these three days. It has helped build or repair 22,000 churches. That aspect alone says a lot. It seems that there is a clear vision for where help is needed and for going to places with the greatest needs. I think that our collaboration with them will be fruitful because we are going to be very conscientious in doing things in an appropriate way. Their presence in Cuba was very positive because in a short time they were able to tour all the dioceses, and we found them to have a great capacity for understanding our reality. In them I’ve found a counterpart I can communicate with that is both understanding and serious. And I thank all the donors.