For a moment last night, it looked as if Thomas Wenski was in over his head. As the Archbishop of Miami stood beneath a giant mural of Cuban history in the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity, he stumbled over his normally flawless Spanish.
"Today, Cuba is a place of growing uncertainty and hopelessness," he told a visiting delegation of Cuban priests. "For 50 years, religious freedoms have been discouraged... But despite its weakened situation and reduced numbers, the Church has survived."
Never before has an archbishop of Miami taken such a leading role in Cuban affairs. Just this weekend, Wenski returned from the island after attending the inauguration of the first new seminary since the revolution. He is currently hosting priests from Cuba.
But the archbishop's high profile in Havana has also made him a target for criticism... and wire tapping.
In many ways, Wenski is walking a 90-mile tight rope between the two countries. While lending quiet support to negotiations over the release of political prisoners, he has resisted opportunities to call for regime change on the island.
During the historic mass on Monday, Wenski insisted the Church in Cuba is "winning more members and new space in which to carry out its mission." In short remarks after mass, Bishop Arturo González of Santa Clara, Cuba echoed the archbishop. "We are here to share our worries and our hopes," he said.
Yet many in Miami are pushing for a quicker pace to change in Cuba. The Cuban government missed a Sunday deadline for releasing 13 remaining political prisoners. On Monday, Miami-based radio station WQBA AM criticized Jaime Ortega, the Cardinal of Havana, for being too conciliatory to the Cuban government.
"In Cuba, you gain things quietly. A lot of patience is required," Wenski said after the mass. "Miami, on the other hand, has always been a very volatile place."
Wenski's behind-the-scenes influence in Cuba has not been quiet enough for some. After attending the seminary's inauguration, none other than Cuban President Raul Castro sauntered up, wine glass in hand, to criticize the archbishop.
"Raul is the guy in power. He said he didn't like some of the comments I made last week, I guess," Wenski said with a shrug.
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During his three-day trip to Havana, Wenski also met with political dissidents. But it wasn't easy. When he tried to call a number that had been left for him at his hotel, the phone call was intercepted by Cuban security forces.
"Meddling foreigners aren't welcome here," said a gravely voice on the other end before hanging up.
Next Tuesday, New Times will publish the most in-depth article to date on Wenski and the challenges facing the Catholic Church in Miami. Stay tuned.