HAVANA – Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the highest official of the Catholic Church in Cuba, died this Friday in Havana after suffering a long illness with cancer, the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba (COCC) announced in a statement. He was 82.
A native of Matanzas in western Cuba, Ortega played a significant role as head of the Catholic Church on the island at a time when it was visited by three popes (John Paul II in 1998, Benedict XVI in 2012 and Francis in 2015), and was an important mediator in the “thaw” between the Caribbean nation and the United States.
After nearly 35 years as archbishop of Havana, the cardinal, who was already suffering from terminal cancer as he later revealed, was succeeded in that position in 2016 by then-archbishop of Camaguey in central Cuba, Juan de la Caridad Garcia.
“Cardinal Jaime has passed away, and as we begin to feel his physical absence, we also feel a thankful affection as we remember his personal qualities and tireless pastoral zeal,” said De la Caridad, who signed the COCC statement.
The Havana archbishop also noted about his predecessor the “friendly smile, astute intelligence and his devoted and sometimes painful priesthood.”
A priesthood that began in Matanzas Cathedral – some 100 km (62 miles) east of Havana – on Aug. 2, 1964, and reached its peak in that same church on Jan. 14, 1979, when he was named archbishop, his successor recalled in the statement.
Authorities of the Catholic Church warned last June about the terrible state of Cardinal Ortega’s health due to a case of pancreatic cancer that did not respond to treatment and so had entered its terminal stage.
Ordained cardinal in 1994, Ortega promoted a simpler version of the Cuban catechism, created new dioceses and parishes led by young priests, and renovated churches, parish houses and assistance centers.
He was also the most visible face of the Catholic Church of Cuba and the organizer of historic pastoral visits by Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis.
He was an efficient negotiator with Cuban government authorities in the process of freeing political prisoners that took place in the years 2010-2011 with the support of the Spanish government.
He who until this Friday was leader of the Catholic Church of Cuba had played another important role when he acted as mediator of secret negotiations which, with the intervention of Pope Frances, led to the restoration of relations between Cuba and the United States, under the leadership of then-Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama.