ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. –– It all started 15 years ago when a small group of Cuban bishops and priests — from both sides of the Florida Straits — began discussing ways to strengthen the bonds that unite them, which led to holding yearly "encuentros," or meetings.
And, according to Bishop Arturo Gonzalez of Santa Clara in Cuba, head of the Cuban bishops' committee on migration and relations with Cubans living outside the island, the purpose of an encuentro is to affirm "the church is church and not anything else."
"These conversations are very fruitful," said Bishop Gonzalez. "They (Cuban exiles) didn't leave to forget."
The meetings were in St. Augustine July 31-Aug. 3, hosted by Bishop Felipe J. Estevez, the Diocese of St. Augustine's first Cuban-born bishop. Two other Cuban-born bishops working in the U.S. – Auxiliary Bishop Octavio Cisneros of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Auxiliary Bishop Nelson J. Perez of Rockville Centre, N.Y. – also attended along with other priests and religious from Cuba, as well as laypeople.
"For more than half a century, Cubans have long endured — patiently waiting for a democratic Cuba," said Bishop Estevez. "These efforts (of the encuentros) to promote mutual understanding and a better knowledge of their situation are very much needed. In a way, it is the civil society finding a bond between the people of Cuba and those living abroad."
"The church in Cuba has long been affected by the imposition of a severe totalitarian regime," he continued. "In spite of immense adversity, the people of God have courageously witnessed the faith, loved the poor and cared for the suffering. They have stood their ground and worshiped God while atheism is the dominant state ideology."
The topics discussed in St. Augustine included:
– A call for spiritual and social renewal.
– A presentation by Bishop Estevez on the life of Father Felix Varela, a candidate for sainthood, as an "eternal symbol of the nation." Father Varela, who has been declared venerable, was a Cuban-born priest who grew up in St. Augustine and ministered at what is now the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine.    

– A historical account of the 500th anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine, presented by Miami-based Cuban-American and historian Salvador Larrua.
– The current state of affairs in the world, Cuba and the U.S., presented by clergy and laypeople from both Cuba and the U.S., and "Restoring the Ethics of the Cuban people," presented by Msgr. Ramon Suarez Polcari, chancellor of the Havana Archdiocese.
Attendees also heard from 16-year-old Matthew Iglesias of Jacksonville, who spoke about his experiences as a volunteer at Camp I Am Special, a St. Augustine diocesan camp for children and young adults with disabilities.
Antonio Fernandez, a lay minister from Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Doral, said encuentros are an important means of understanding the trials and tribulations faced by the Cuban people as well as those outside of Cuba.
"We come to understand both their problems and our problems," said Fernandez. "And more than understanding is knowing that we are a single people along two shores. They have their problems and we have ours. And this is not utopia."
Fernandez added that for exiles like him who left Cuba in the 1960s and did not return until recently, the conversations also cause them to readjust their "fixed view" of life in Cuba.
"Society is dynamic," he said. "The Cuba I knew in the 1960s really does not exist. It has evolved and suffered change and had to live new experiences. I left a church in the catacombs – destroyed."
"Priests, 132 of them, had been put on a ship (and expelled)," explained Fernandez. "The majority of religious, who taught in schools, their orders pulled them out because once the schools closed what were they going to do? The church I left was a suffering church. And now I return more than 50 years later and I find a church that is poor, very poor, but very active, with dynamism and an experience, a life that I envy."
"It has not been easy," said Rita Petrirena, Cuba's delegate to the Latin American bishops' meeting in Brazil, as well as two synods in Rome. She shared a PowerPoint presentation outlining the past 30 years in the history of the Catholic Church in Cuba.
At one point, she said, there were only 200 priests for 10 million inhabitants.
"We have been few – we have had many difficulties," said Petrirena. "But at the same time, the grace of God has never been lacking," she added, noting that beginning in 1979, the Cuban church began moving from "a silent witness to evangelization."
There was a moment, said Msgr. Arnaldo Aldama of the Diocese of Holguin, Cuba, when the Catholic Church "lived only on the Eucharist, on the word, on worship." But it never forgot to serve "the other."
"The church lives to serve those who are on the outside. To bring them the faith, to bring them love," said Msgr. Aldama. "Therefore the church is prophetic. And it doesn't live according to what others allow it to do."
Asked what the Cuban Church requires of those living outside the island, Bishop Gonzalez said simply, "I believe very much in what we say at Mass, what we say each Sunday in the creed: I believe in the communion of saints. We need that nearness. We need understanding. We need to feel just that — church."
The St. Augustine gathering ended with a Mass Aug. 3 at Prince of Peace Votive Church on the grounds of Mission Nombre de Dios. On Aug. 4, the group traveled to Miami and attended a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in Miami.

Rodriguez-Soto is editor of the Florida Catholic, newspaper of the Miami Archdiocese.