Archbishop Fred Hiltz, the Canadian primate, speaks with Nerva Cot Aguilera, suffragan bishop of Cuba, outside the annual diocesan synod. It was Archbishop Hiltz’ first trip to Cuba as advisor to its synod.
A sense that change is coming to Cuba as leader Fidel Castro’s era comes to an end was present as Archbishop Fred Hiltz, the Canadian primate, and a group of church leaders visited the Caribbean nation from Feb. 4 to 11.
A week after they returned, Mr. Castro, who has held power in the Communist nation since 1959, announced he would step down at the age of 81.
The Canadian delegation, which included General Secretary Michael Pollesel and Bishop Michael Bird of the diocese of Niagara (which has a companion relationship with the diocese of Cuba), met with Cuba’s federal minister of religious affairs, Caridad Diego.
Ms. Diego gave the group “some of the perspective of government and church,” said Archbishop Hiltz in a briefing to staff on Feb. 21 at the Anglican Church of Canada’s national office in Toronto. He noted that although Mr. Castro had said that he is not a believer, he respects what the church does in terms of outreach. Churches operate freely in the island nation.
Discussion of Mr. Castro’s future was more lively a year ago, said members of the Canadian delegation, when he became ill and was not seen in public; still, there is a sense that Cubans feel they are in a transition period.
The presence of U.S. presiding bishop (primate, or national bishop) Katharine Jefferts Schori also underscored the fact that the United States, which has greatly influenced Cuba’s fortunes, is preparing for the transition to a new president after a November election.
Canada’s primate, along with the presiding bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church and the primate of the West Indies, make up the Metropolitan Council of Cuba, which has oversight over the Anglican church there. The Canadian primate also advises the annual synod.
Archbishop Drexel Gomez of the West Indies is a well-known conservative concerning the sexuality issues roiling the Anglican Communion today, but the issue did not arise during the council’s meetings. All three concelebrated the eucharist, said Archbishop Hiltz.
“In terms of the current crisis, we didn’t see any of that on (the Cuban church’s) agenda,” said Archbishop Hiltz.
However, the Iglesia Episcopal de Cuba, which includes 10,000 Anglicans in 45 parishes, (out of a population of 11.4 million) is also looking ahead to a period of transition. Due to various tensions, Cuba has not elected its own diocesan bishop in 17 years. It is currently led by Bishop Miguel Tamayo of Uruguay, on an interim basis, and two local suffragan (assistant) bishops, Nerva Cot Aguilera and Ulises Mario Aguero Prendes.
“Bishop Tamayo is laying the groundwork for the creation of two dioceses, eastern and western Cuba, and it is a sign of the growing strength of the church in Cuba. He was looking for comment and support in that direction,” noted Archbishop Hiltz. The council, which has administered the diocese since it left the U.S. Episcopal Church in 1967 due to political tensions between the countries, approved the move in principle and asked for a detailed plan for next year’s meeting.
Bishop Tamayo and the two suffragans are close to retirement and “Miguel wants to be sure plans are in place for ongoing episcopal ministry in the diocese,” said Archbishop Hiltz.
Synod’s closing service saw the ordination of three priests and one deacon, including a young woman, in an atmosphere that was “quite moving,” he said.
The Canadians toured the Matanzas Seminary, an ecumenical institution that receives a $5,000 annual grant from the Canadian church’s partnerships department and serves about 500 students across Cuba through various programs. They also visited the Martin Luther King Centre, an adult educational facility that is supported by the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund.
In his first visit, said Archbishop Hiltz, he saw a “passion and joy” in worship and in the church as a whole that he wished he could always see in Canada. Added Archdeacon Pollesel, “They are able to do so much with so little. The church works really hard at faith in action. They really live out what they believe.”