Father Felix Varela was a bridge-builder among Cubans and among Americans in his own 19th century, and with the Vatican declaring him venerable, the Cuban priest becomes relevant in that way for new generations, said the vice postulator of his sainthood cause.
Auxiliary Bishop Octavio Cisneros of Brooklyn, a Cuban-American who is shepherding Father Varela’s cause, told Catholic News Service that he was elated by the April 8 announcement of the Vatican’s declaration.
The declaration recognizes that the priest lived heroic Christian virtues. It is the first official step on a path to sainthood.
The announcement was made on Easter Sunday by the New York and Miami archdioceses, where there are many proponents of Father Varela’s cause, and the Diocese of St. Augustine, Fla., where he died, and by the Cuban bishops’ conference. The announcement in New York came during Cardinal Dolan’s Easter Sunday Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. (Story on Page 17)
A statement from the Cuban bishops’ conference called Father Varela “a worthy Cuban priest, exemplary in Christian and priestly virtues and eminent in his patriotism.”
Bishop Cisneros told CNS in an April 10 phone interview that he had expected the declaration to be announced by Pope Benedict XVI during his March 26-28 visit to Cuba and wasn’t certain why that didn’t happen.
The Congregation for Saint’s Causes issued its decree March 14. But having the declaration made public at Easter was “for the purposes of the Church in the United States, even better,” Bishop Cisneros said. “It gave us the opportunity to say who Father Varela was.”
Born in Havana in 1788 and ordained at age 23, Father Varela served as a philosophy professor at the Seminary of St. Charles and St. Ambrose in his native city and published many books. He was an outspoken supporter of Cuban independence from Spain. He represented the then-Spanish island in the Cortes, Spain’s Parliament. His opposition to the Spanish monarchy led to his exile in 1823.
He went to the United States, where he served as a priest in New York for 30 years and became the first Cuban priest to be incardinated into what was then the Diocese of New York.
He was the founding pastor of two lower Manhattan parishes, Transfiguration and St. James. And, although other Cuban exiles—most of whom were well-off—lived in New York at the time, Father Varela is known for his devoted pastoral care of the city’s poorest residents, particularly the Irish immigrants.
Father Raymond Nobiletti, M.M., the current pastor of Transfiguration parish, said his parishioners “are very interested in (Father Varela).” The parish recently established committees to regularly celebrate the holy lives of Father Varela, along with St. Frances Xavier Cabrini and Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement.
Father Varela’s care and concern for immigrants, and the fact that he was one himself goes along way with today’s worshippers in the Chinatown parish, Father Nobiletti reasons.
An 1983 op-ed piece in CNY, written by Helen M. McCadden, who had co-authored a book on Father Varela, said, “As pastor, (Father) Varela spent his days helping the poor and homeless, bringing the comfort of the sacraments at risk of his own life to the victims of pestilence-ridden ships, organizing a Temperance Society, a Ladies’ Aid and a Half-Orphan Society (later incorporated into St. Vincent’s Hospital). To those in need he gave not only his priestly devotion but also his money, his food, his table silver, household linens and his own coat. His charity became a living legend.”
Father Varela served as vicar general of the Diocese of New York for 16 years under Bishop John DuBois and Archbishop John Hughes. He also published a Spanish-language newspaper and was a theological consultor at the Council of Baltimore.
Toward the end of his life, Father Varela became ill and moved to St. Augustine. He was familiar with the area because he had spent time there as a child with his grandfather, who had been a fort commander in what at the time was a Spanish possession. He died in Florida in 1853.
Father Varela’s remains were transferred to Havana in 1911 and installed in a place of honor in the Aula Magna (Great Hall) of the University of Havana.
After the declaration of venerable, the second step in the sainthood process is beatification, and the third is canonization. In general, each of the last two steps needs a miracle to be accepted by the Church as having occurred through the intercession of the prospective saint.
A statement from the Cuban bishops’ conference, which opened Father Varela’s sainthood cause with Vatican authorization in 1985, said they would “beseech God that in the near future we may know of a miracle through his intercession which, once established, would enable the proclamation of Blessed Father Varela as an immediate step to canonization.”
During Pope Benedict’s trip to Cuba, he praised Father Varela in his homily at the papal Mass in Revolution Square in Havana as “the first one who taught his people how to think.”
The Holy Father said, “Father Varela offers us a path to true transformation of society: to form virtuous men and women in order to forge a worthy and free nation, for this transformation depends on the spiritual…”
The March 14 decree from the Congregation for Saints’ Causes declaring Father Varela venerable cited the priest’s own words at a time of upheaval in Cuba that ultimately led to the nation’s independence: “I want to be a soldier of Christ. My purpose is not to kill men, but to save souls.”
One measure of his lasting impact on Cuba is that the day the declaration was issued by the Vatican, The Washington Post featured a story about a recent program at a former seminary that now houses the Father Felix Varela Cultural Center in Havana.
The Post described “a hall packed with professors, dissidents, clergy, bloggers, leftists, diplomats. The subject matter once unthinkable.” The event was a talk featuring Miami millionaire Carlos Saladrigas, a Cuban exile who has gone from being a hard-liner on Cuban isolation to encouraging dialogue, the paper reported.
In a recent interview with Catholic News Service, the Varela Center’s cultural director, Gustavo Andujar, described such programs as a fitting tribute to the center’s namesake because he was part of early discussions of Cuban independence, some of which were held in the then-seminary that now bears Father Varela’s name.
Father Varela is not only a model of holiness for Cuban Catholics; both the communist government and its opponents invoke him as an inspiration for their actions.
When Blessed John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, then-President Fidel Castro gave the pope a biography of Father Varela as a gift.
That same year, a member of the Christian Liberation Movement began what became known as the Varela Project, an effort aimed at promoting democratic reforms, including greater freedom of speech and of the press, free elections, religious freedom, the ability to begin private businesses and the release of political prisoners.
Cuba’s communist government cracked down on dissidents in 2003, arresting dozens of the people involved in the Varela Project. The wives and mothers of those arrested then formed the “Damas de Blanco,” or Ladies in White, a group of women who, dressed in white, attend Mass together on Sundays in St. Rita of Cascia Church in Havana and then march through the nearby streets.