HAVANA – Cuban Catholics bade farewell on Sunday to Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the leader of the island’s Church, in a funeral mass held at the Cathedral of Havana attended by the faithful, bishops and priests as well as representatives of the Cuban government.
The body of the late cardinal and archbishop emeritus of Havana, dressed in a red chasuble – a color used in the funeral ceremonies for Popes and cardinals –, was displayed at the church alongside his ring, miter and staff from Friday (the day of his death) until Sunday.
During the funeral service, he received tribute in liturgy and prayer. According to Catholic tradition, the bells were rung at churches throughout the country at various times during these three days.
Hundreds of faithful came to bid their last farewell to Cardinal Ortega – a key figure in the relations between the Cuban government and the Catholic Church in the last half-century –, who died at the age of 82 following a battle against pancreatic cancer.
The archbishop of Havana, Monsignor Juan de la Caridad Garcia, officiated the last mass of the funeral, which was also attended by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston.
The head of the Apostolic Nunciature of Cuba, Monsignor Jean François Simonart, read a message of condolence from Pope Francis, in which the pontiff expressed his hope for “the eternal rest of the deceased, who served the Church and his brothers in the various offices entrusted to him by Providence.’’
Representing the Cuban government were the first vice-president, Salvador Valdes, the head of the National Assembly, Esteban Lazo, and vice-president Roberto Morales.
After the ceremony, the mortal remains of Cardinal Ortega were deposited inside the Pantheon of the Bishops at the Havana Necropolis.
Jaime Lucas Ortega Alamino was born in the town of Jaguey Grande in the western province of Matanzas, where he was ordained a priest on Aug. 2, 1964.
Four years later, he was appointed pastor of the Cathedral of Matanzas, responsible for the church of Pueblo Nuevo in the city and two other churches outside it.
On Dec. 4, 1978, John Paul II appointed him Bishop of Pinar del Rio. He was made CardinalPriest of Santi Aquila e Priscilla by John Paul II in the consistory of Nov. 26, 1994.
Cardinal Ortega played an important role as the island’s head of the Catholic Church during a time when the country 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 in diplomatic relations between the Caribbean country and the United States.
He served as the archbishop of Havana for almost 35 years until 2016, when he handed over the post to the until-then archbishop of Camaguey, Juan de la Caridad Garcia. It was later revealed that Ortega was already suffering from terminal-stage cancer at that time.
Ortega was the promoter of a simpler version of the Cuban catechism and created new dioceses and churches in which he placed young priests. He also rebuilt churches, parish houses and assistance centers.
A highlight of his career was the prominent role played as a mediator with the Cuban government in a bid to achieve the release of political prisoners between 2010-11 with the support of the Spanish government.
He also acted as a mediator in secret negotiations that, with the intervention of Pope Francis, resulted in the restoration of relations between Cuba and the US in 2014 during the terms of the then-presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama, respectively.