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Faithful want priest to be saint

By April Witt
Herald Writer
--Published on January 18, 1998, in The Miami Herald

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Cuban patriot Jose Marti once visited the grave of Father Felix Varela and called the 19th Century priest -- who labored to free his homeland from Spanish rule -- ``the Cuban saint.''

Now Cuban Catholics on the island, in South Florida and throughout the Cuban diaspora are waiting anxiously to learn if Pope John II agrees.

The Vatican has been investigating whether Varela should become the first Cuban officially declared a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.

Scholarly church detectives, including a Miami parish priest and a retired college professor from Key Biscayne, have traveled widely and searched intensely to help the Vatican document the life, writings and good works of Varela, who died in exile in St. Augustine in 1853.

Dozens of South Florida Catholics devoted to Varela -- they call themselves Varelianos -- are praying this week that the pontiff will use his visit to Cuba, which begins Wednesday, to declare the beatification of Varela, bringing him one step closer to sainthood.

``This is an emotional time, let me tell you,'' said Francisco Muller, 58, a church organist and member of the Father Varela Foundation, a Miami group dedicated to promoting knowledge about the priest.

``Father Varela was a man of such heroic virtue that it's almost like he came from another world. He united people -- even politically divided people -- and that in itself is a miracle.''

In the Varelianos favor: Pope John Paul II is the most prolific saint-maker in the history of the church. To broaden the church's base, he has named saints in previously overlooked parts of the world, including Africa and Asia. And he has conferred sainthood during his many pastoral travels as something of a gift to the local church.

Against them: Canonization is a slow-moving process. Vatican bureaucrats are believed to be searching still for proof of a miracle that can be attributed to the intercession of Varela, such as a healing that has no scientific explanation.

``We are waiting for a miracle,'' said Monsignor Octavio Cisneros, who has a specific charge from the Vatican to promote the cause of Varela's canonization and is the most authoritative expert on the subject in the United States.

``I've been informed that there are some possibilities, but nothing has come of them,'' said Cisneros, the rector of a college seminary in the Diocese of Brooklyn. ``Everywhere I go I say `Pray to Felix Varela, and if you have a miracle, let me know.' ''

Until the last decade, the Catholic Church required proof of two miracles for beatification and two more for canonization. As one of several efforts to streamline canonization, the pope now requires just one miracle at each stage.

``The pope can advance the cause without even one miracle, but he has never done that before,'' Cisneros said. Because of that, Cisneros does not expect the pope to beatify Varela during his papal visit to Cuba this week.

Even so, Varela will likely have a high profile, particularly Friday when the pontiff is scheduled to visit Varela's remains at the University of Havana.

Varela was a prolific author who called for Cuban independence from Spain 50 years before Marti. He wrote of human dignity, the need for enlightenment and the dangers of fanaticism. He didn't advocate armed revolution, but believed freedom begins in the soul and the best weapons are spiritual.

The pope could use Varela's words and personal history to draw a larger moral and historic point about Cuba. ``If he wishes to issue a condemnation of the Cuban regime nowadays, all he has to do is quote Varela,'' said Jose B. Hernandez of Key Biscayne, a retired Georgetown University dean and history professor who helped collect and examine Varela's writings for the Vatican.

Already, Varela is venerated by many Cuban Catholics in South Florida who consider him the perfect symbol of a papal visit to Cuba in which politics and faith are so intertwined.

Spurred in part by the effort to have him canonized, Varela devotees in Miami have formed the foundation to spread his story, make twice-yearly pilgrimages to St. Augustine, where he died, and successfully lobbied to have his image placed on a U.S. stamp. Dozens gather monthly at a Miami restaurant where they eat breakfast, listen to a lecture and discuss a current topic through the lens of Varela's life and ideas.

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Strong Imagery:    Xavier Cortada, born in the U.S., expresses the pain and struggle of the exile experience of Father Felix Varela, A Cuban patriot who died in exile.

``Every exile identifies with him,'' said the Rev. Jose Menendez, pastor of Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Miami, where the bells will ring out the Cuban national anthem this week, in honor of the pope's visit to the island. ``His life is very close to our life.''

To Varelianos, the facts of Varela's life are as familiar as the Rosary. Born in Havana in 1788, he gained prominence as an educator and philosopher -- a Renaissance man who taught the first course in Cuba on constitution law, wrote physics textbooks and was a talented violinist who helped found the Philharmonic Society of Havana.

After risking his life by advocating Cuba's independence from Spain, he was forced to flee to the United States in 1823. In New York, he continued his intellectual crusade for independence, but also became a selfless pastor to the poor. He ministered to Irish immigrants, visiting the most wretched during a cholera outbreak, and became known for giving his own meager possessions -- including his coat in winter -- to the needy.

The richness of his accomplishments make his life something of an enchanted mirror in which many exiles see their struggles reflected.

Muller, who holds a master's degree in physics, calls Varela a ``treasure to be discovered.''



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``To me, he is an example of an intelligent believer,'' said Muller, who writes a newsletter for Varela devotees. ``His harmonizing faith and science have given me a lot of inspiration."

Miami artist Xavier Cortada, 33, is painting a portrait of Varela for an exhibit exploring the artist's personal struggle for Cuban identity. Born in the United States, Cortada knows Cuba only through family stories and letters from relatives he has never met.

His visceral, surreal portrait of Varela shows the priest with lion's paws instead of hands. In the tearing grip of one paw Varela holds a boy, Cortada as a child. In the other paw is a document, representing both Varela's exile writings and Cortada's family letters from Cuba.

``It's a very painful experience, missing someone you've never seen,'' Cortada said. ``What this painting is about is how this suffering is a Cuban right of passage. Varela is telling me, these writings, let them make you cry. To not do that is an affront to history and what's happened to your nation.''

The Rev. Francisco Santana, a priest active in anti-Castro exile politics, can't help but believe that Fidel Castro's Cuba will quake the day the patriot-priest becomes St. Felix Varela.

``It would be like a national exorcism,'' Santana said. ``The Holy Spirit descending not only in the person of Felix Varela but on the whole nation. The implications are tremendous.''

`A secular hero

In Cuba, Varela has been best known as a secular hero. One of the highest medals of honor that Castro's government awards is named for Varela.

That secular image of Varela is changing as the Catholic Church in Cuba gains strength after years of repression. In the mid-1980s, the bishops of Cuba asked the Vatican to consider Varela for sainthood. The Vatican accepted Varela as a candidate for canonization, and his official title became Servant of God.

In Rome, the Vatican appointed a ``postulator'' or advocate for the cause of Varela's canonization, and two vice postulators.

Working through a tribunal in Cuba and the U.S.-based Commission of the Beatification of Father Felix Varela, Varela's advocates conducted meticulous research on his life.

In August 1996, Varela's advocates gathered in Havana for a ceremony. They placed the record they had constructed of his extraordinary life into a box, sealed it and mailed it to Rome to be examined by the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The ultimate decision rests with the pope.

The Varelianos are now praying for the cause of Cuba, and for Varela. They're looking for miracles, and seeing them all around.

``The visit of the Holy Father is guided by the hand of God,'' Cisneros said. ``We're already seeing the results, the upholding of the faith of the people. Most of the young people in Cuba have not been baptized or confirmed, but now they are asking questions about God. And if that is not a miracle, what is?''

Click here to see the Varela painting