March 28th, 2012
11:32 AM ET
By Patrick Oppmann, CNN
Havana, Cuba (CNN) – Driving out of Havana on the four-lane and mostly empty Carretera Central, it’s easy to miss the future of the Catholic Church in Cuba.
But on the left hand side of the highway is the San Carlos and Ambrosio Seminary, looking more like one of the many sprawling Spanish resort hotels that dot the Caribbean island.
“We are shaping Cuba’s priests of tomorrow here,” said the Rev. Jose Miguel Gonzalez, the seminary’s rector and a Spanish priest, who has worked in Cuba for 12 years.
The seminary is home to 54 Cubans studying for the priesthood, who say Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the island nation this week gives a big boost to their cause.
With overgrown grass and Spartan accommodations, the seminary hardly seems remarkable. But it’s the first building that Cuba’s government has allowed the Catholic Church to build since the 1959 revolution.
After Fidel Castro took power, the church found itself in a power struggle with the revolutionaries, who accused the clergy of siding with the deposed dictatorship. Hundreds of priests went into exile, and Catholic schools were shuttered across the island, including the Jesuit school where Castro once studied.
Like much of the Cuban capital, Havana’s seminary fell into disrepair during economic hard times. Most Cubans hoping to become priests had to leave the country to complete the eight years of study.
But Gonzalez rejects the idea that the church, although weakened, lost its way.
“The Cuban church does not need to be reconstructed, because it’s already been built,” he said. “The Cuban church needs to keep doing what it has done, moving forward in the community.”
Those advances, however, took decades. Not until Pope John Paul II’s historic visit in 1998 did the church win approval to build the new seminary.
When the seminary opened in 2010, President Raul Castro attended the inauguration ceremony. The first stone used in the building, blessed by John Paul II, now stands at the seminary entrance.
Gonzalez said the church has made slow progress, but progress all the same.
“In the last few years, the old tensions have lessened,” he said. ”There is great ability to talk, maintain a dialogue. They are more receptive to our initiatives, like the creation and operation of this seminary.”
Financial aid arrives from around the world to support the seminary. Still, Gonzalez said, the Cuban church is hampered by the limited means to spread its message and raise funds.
“A great challenge is to prepare these young men, these future priests, to do something they can’t do now, which is one day be able to evangelize,” he said.
The challenges will be substantial. Cuba has the lowest population of Catholic priests in Latin America. Even though some 60% of Cubans identify themselves as Catholics, the church estimates that only 10% regularly attends services.
But seminarians who spoke to CNN said they were not intimidated by the hardships that their vocation will bring.
“The priests here carry out reconciliation,” said Yasmany Ibaldo Perez Marañon. “Not only the uniting of people, but of the uniting of people with God.”
Marcelo Diaz said he is joining the priesthood for the "important mission of trying to save Cuba."
Alien Cruz Fernandez said he believes the pope's visit this week is a sign.
“That he comes to Cuba, a country that’s not that important, a small country, it’s a sign that God sees us (and) that the (Catholic) Church is also watching Cuba, too,” he said.
Sister Eva Maria Ackerman is one of four nuns from Texas who are helping at the seminary. She said she never expected to serve her church overseas, much less in one of the last bastions of communism.
“My family and friends were like Cuba, Missouri? And I said, ‘No, Cuba the island, the country,’ ” Ackerman said. “In that way, I could see the hand of God in it.
“My faith has been strengthened by the strength of their faith. I think the faith has been there, but I think in some ways they’ve been able to be more outward with it.”
The pope is not scheduled to visit the seminary during his three-day visit. But his trip to Cuba is expected to reap benefits for the rebuilding of the Catholic Church.
Fernandez said Benedict’s visit will “renew our faith, just as Pope John Paul II’s did.”
When asked what Cubans needed most though, rector Gonzalez didn’t hesitate. “Hope,” he said.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.