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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Cuban Priest on the Path to Sainthood...

Venerable Fr. Felix Varela
Nineteenth Century Cuban scholar, Jose de la Luz y Caballero, once said that, "As long as there is thought in Cuba, we will remember him (Fr. Felix Varela), the one who taught us how to think."

De la Luz was speaking from firsthand experience, having been a student of the one-time brilliant professor of Philosophy, Physics, Chemistry, Theology and Music at the College Seminary of Sts. Charles and Ambrose in Havana.

Fr. Varela's influence was great among much of the Cuban intelligentsia, shaping the perspective on political and social issues of the times.  One of those he is said to have influenced is the man referred to as the Apostle of Cuba's Independence, Jose Marti.

On Easter Sunday, the Archbishops of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and of Miami, Thomas Wenski, were given the honor of announcing that after an extensive and exhaustive investigation, which started in 1996, Pope Benedict XVI approved the unanimous recommendation of the Vatican's Congregation for Saints' Causes to give Fr. Felix Francisco Jose Maria de la Concepcion Varela Morales, aka Felix Varela, the status of "Venerable" in the Catholic Church.

The recognition means that he lived a virtuous life within the faith (to a heroic degree) and is worthy of veneration.  It is a step in the Catholic Church's process of sainthood, which is followed by beatification once a miracle is attributed to his direct intercession. A second miracle would lead to canonization (sainthood).

The honor of the announcement was befitting to both U.S. Archdioceses.  One because Fr. Varela served there for almost thirty years (New York, although it was a Diocese then).  The other because of the large Cuban population, which continues to hold him in the highest regard among historic figures and even naming a school in his honor (Miami).

In a press release, Archbishop Wenski stated, "In his homily in Havana, Pope Benedict called Father Felix Varela 'a shining example' of the contributions a person of faith can make in building a more just society.  Varela in his own words reminds us that 'there is no authentic fatherland without virtue.'  In recognizing this holy priest's heroic virtue by conferring on him the title of 'Venerable,' the pope offers to the world a role model who in being 'the first to teach his people how to think' also shows us a path to a true transformation of society."

The Venerable Father was born in Havana in 1788, the son of a Captain in the Spanish Army and a house wife and grandson of an Army Lieutenant. 

After his mother's death, when he was six, the young Felix traveled with an aunt to St. Augustine, Florida, where he lived until his father's death in his early adulthood.

He gave up a promising military career to follow his vocation to the priesthood and enrolled in the seminary, where he later taught in Havana.  He was ordained into the priesthood at the age of twenty-three.

His reputation in Cuba's literary and cultural circles spread quickly and soon he was elected to represent the people of Cuba in the Spanish Parliament (the legislature).

However, the two most notorious legislations he introduced drew the ire of the Spanish Crown.  One called for the abolishment of slavery and the other called for the autonomy and independence of Latin America, including Cuba.

He was sentenced to death but before he could be arrested, he sought refuge in Gibraltar and later went into exile in the United States.

New York became his new home and he lived and served as a priest there for the next thirty years, where he became a strong advocate of Irish immigrants and played a major role in the way the Church dealt with the great Irish influx (even learning to speak Irish to better communicate with them), helped construct and open churches, Catholic schools and asylums for children and cared for the poor and sick, particularly during a cholera epidemic in 1830.

He also founded the first Spanish-language newspaper in the U.S., often writing about immigrant and human rights issues, as well as religious tolerance and the importance of education (He was always an advocate for women's education). 

Varela grew progressively ill as he got older and moved to the milder climate of St. Augustine, where he had once lived.  He died in 1853 and his remains were later returned to Cuba (about 60 years later), where he was laid to rest in the University of Havana's Aula Magna.

At the tender age of four, Fr. Felix Varela is said to have told his family, "I want to be a soldier of Christ.  My purpose is not to kill men, but to save souls."

Obviously, the priesthood was a lifetime calling and now with the title of Venerable, he is apparently on his way to continuing his purpose as a Saint...
     

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