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A HISTORIC PILGRIMAGE

In Spirit of Reconciliation, Pope Blesses a National Hero

Symbol: Felix Varela was not only a crusader for freedom but a priest. Ceremony reflects themes of redemption and truth underlying pontiff's trip.

January 24, 1998|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HAVANA — When the bones of Felix Varela Morales reached his native land in 1911, half a century after his death, Havana's archbishop said he was too busy to formally receive the remains of the Cuban priest, who now is a potential saint and is venerated by the Cuban nation.

For decades, the Vatican shunned Varela's memory, ignoring the deeds of a man it saw as an extremist. And for decades more, Fidel Castro's Communist government changed his history--often failing to mention that Varela was a Roman Catholic priest as well as a national hero.

But Friday, 210 years after his birth, Varela's bones, his memory and his life were blessed by the pope himself, as John Paul II closed his eyes and prayed beside Varela's white marble tomb in the University of Havana's Grand Hall.

With Castro making a surprise appearance in the audience, the pontiff then proclaimed the priest "the foundation stone of the Cuban national identity."

That blessing before 280 Cuban intellectuals who are searching anew for Cuba's identity--and, indeed, the extraordinary life and death of the renegade intellectual priest who has the best prospects to become Cuba's first Catholic saint--embodied the core of John Paul's mission to Cuba this week and of Castro's mission in receiving the pontiff. It is a shared mission of redemption and reconciliation for a church and a state, as both try to redress conflicts and errors of the past and, in the process, seek to reunite the Cuban people in the future.

For the 77-year-old pope who solemnly blessed Varela's once-forgotten tomb, the task is a global one. More than any other pope in history, John Paul has sought forgiveness for sins committed in the name of his faith. He has tried to atone for Rome's sometimes anti-Semitic behavior and has apologized for the conduct of the Crusaders, persecution of Protestants, Galileo's mistreatment and the church's silence about the Italian Mafia.

Friday night, it was Varela's turn. The pope's veneration, confirmed Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, "was just recognizing the truth. [The pope] is getting on the right side of history. He is a man who does not fear history. He is a man who does not fear the truth."

For Castro and his Communist government, which has taught a generation of Cubans that Varela was the father of their culture but not a man of God, Friday night's ceremony reflected a fundamental realization that its past policies against Catholicism and all religion were wrong. The gifts Castro handed the pontiff when they met in private this week symbolized that: The Cuban leader gave the pope a first edition of an 1878 biography of Varela--one of just 10 copies that remain in the world. He also presented him with the jewel-encrusted Order of Felix Varela, now Cuba's highest decoration for culture.

John Paul, in the university's wood and marble Grand Hall, framed the moment Friday night in a speech calling for Cuban reconciliation: "In this country, most of those who shape culture--Catholic and non-Catholic, believers and nonbelievers--are people of dialogue, prepared both to speak and listen. I encourage them to pursue with vigor the search for a synthesis with which all Cubans can identify and to foster a Cuban identity, both comprehensive and harmonious, which can unite the various national traditions they represent."

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There is no better example of that synthesis in Cuban history than the life of Varela, the pope said, echoing Cuba's clergy and now its government.

Born to white Spaniards in Havana in 1788, Varela was 14 when he entered the seminary here. By the time he died at 64 in exile in St. Augustine, Fla., Varela, frail and alone, had invented nothing less than a new school of thought. He fought to emancipate slaves in Cuba, proposed a commonwealth for Spain's colonies and built churches and parish schools in New York, where he fled from Spain in 1823 under a sentence of death for his preaching.

Through the years he spent defining what it meant to be Cuban, Varela became the mentor of Jose Marti, who later fathered Cuban independence. Marti, whose words are gospel in Castro's Cuba, credited Varela with planting the seeds that Marti harvested.

Varela also served for many years as a vicar in New York. He was a playwright, a journalist, a political theorist and author.

And he performed miracles, according to the 6-inch file sent to the Vatican in November advocating sainthood for him. By convention, the substance of those miracles--requirements for beatification--is confidential until after sainthood is decided.

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