HAVANA -- Cardinal Jaime Ortega and four other Catholic bishops celebrated Mass on Christmas Day in several Cuban jails for the first time since the victory of the revolution 50 years ago, the Cuban Bishops Conference, or COCC, said.
Seventeen inmates who regularly receive pastoral visits attended Mass in Havana's Combinado del Este Prison, where they spoke with Cardinal Ortega and received a statuette of Baby Jesus and prints of Cuba's patron saint, Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, the COCC said in a statement posted on its Web site.
"They were awed and in a very spiritual state of mind. It was wonderful, there were a lot of tears and to us it was an incredible experience," Father Felix Hernandez, who accompanied Cardinal Ortega in giving Holy Communion together with a deacon and two seminary students, said.
Hernandez, who has worked as a prison pastor for more than 20 years in Havana, believes that celebrating Christmas in a number of the nation's jails shows that "steps are being taken to improve spiritual care in that world behind bars."
"I also think we have to be ready to meet these challenges as they arise and that are so important," the prelate said.
"Christmas in 2008 will be unforgettble for those who work as prison pastors...for the first time in five decades Christmas was celebrated in a number of Cuban jails," the COCC statement, published also in Palabra Nueva, the magazine of the Havana archdiocese, said.
Allowing the church to provide more assistance to inmates and their families was one of the requests of the Latin American Bishops Council, or Celam, to the island's authorities during the meeting held in Havana in 2007.
Havana Auxiliary Bishop Juan de Dios Hernandez celebrated Christmas Mass at the La Condesa Penitentiary, where foreign citizens are held.
Masses celebrating Christmas also reached jails in the eastern dioceses of Santiago de Cuba and Camaguey, and Santa Clara in the central part of the island.
Relations between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government have had their ups and downs ever since the revolutionary government took power in 1959.
But after the visit of Pope John Paul II to Cuba in January 1998, the way opened to dialogue and the recovery of religious traditions, such as the official celebration of Christmas and the authorization of public processions that had been banned until then.