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First Catholic Church to be built in Cuba since 1959

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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Father Castro Cirilo, a priest in the Roman Catholic church, celebrates Mass in a converted garage in the Cuban village of Sandino, the site of the first Roman Catholic Church to be built in Cuba in 56 years (Credit: CNN)

The village of Sandino was founded by the Cuban government for a unique and tragic purpose. It was meant to be a place where political dissidents and others thought to oppose the new government could be exiled while still kept under surveillance in the early 1960’s. However the city’s ignoble origins make it all the more fitting as a beacon of hope for many in the country today. You see, Sandino is to be the site of the first new Catholic church built in Cuba in over 56 years. Its congregation currently meets in the garage of a home owned by the church and its priest, Cirilo Castro, drives into town each week to officiate Mass. Rev. Castro’s hope is that the church, once completed in 2017, will not be confined to the four walls but rather that the building will be a symbol of rejuvenated faith in the area.

The church is already serving as that symbol to many who see the project as evidence of a shifting tide in the Catholic Church’s relationship with the Cuban government. Monsignor Jorge Enrique Serpa Pérez echoes the opinion of many Church officials when he says that the Sandino church “can be the first, the second, the third. It doesn’t matter to me. The important thing is people build what they need where they need it.” The ability to consistently build such places of worship has not been possible since Fidel Castro’s government took over in 1959. Early in the revolution, thousands of Catholic priests were either imprisoned or exiled and Church property was routinely confiscated. While Christians of all denominations have been viewed with suspicion by the Cuban government since the revolution, the Catholic Church was especially targeted in the early years because it was “seen as being overly sympathetic to the Batista regime that Castro had driven from power.” Pope John Paul II‘s visit in 1998 and Pope Francis’ recent efforts in encouraging a new round of discussions between Cuba and the United States have helped to improve relations between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government, but there is still work to be done.

While an official building will most likely be a better arrangement for the congregation in Sandino than their present accommodations, a building does not guarantee a successful church. Some of the most beautiful structures in the world are the Cathedrals in Europe, many of which are more populated by tourists than faithful believers on any given Sunday. If the church in Sandino wants to be truly successful, then Father Castro’s vision of the church serving as a catalyst for the congregation’s larger work in the area must become a reality.

In Acts 2:42-47, Luke describes how the first church experienced the kind of success that the congregation in Sandino, and every other congregation regardless of denomination, should seek to have. He writes that those first believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

The early church was successful when they were actively seeking a better understanding of Christ in genuine fellowship with one another while sharing Christ’s love with those around them. Essentially, God’s Church grew when God’s people did church his way and, in that regard, nothing has changed in the last 2,000 years. Whether we worship in a secluded village in Cuba, a metropolitan center in the United States, or anywhere in between, God’s vision for his Church is clear. Will you live it out today?