SANTIAGO DE CUBA, CUBA – In this Caribbean nation of 11.3 million, one of the greatest challenges to Catholic evangelization comes from Cubans who practise traditional African religions.
In Cuba, this syncretism of mostly animist African religions mixed with mainstream Catholicism is popular, said Jesuit Father Juan Rovira, an "avid student" of popular devotion.
Rovira, pastor of a parish in Santiago de Cuba, told Catholic News Service March 29 that most popular devotees come to see him only when they need Baptisms, funerals and a few other services.
Most are required to be baptized in the Catholic Church before they can be baptized in their syncretic groups, he added.
When Pope Benedict visited Santiago de Cuba March 26-27, some Cubans wore traditional African attire.
"Those seen at the papal events in their particular dress most likely were not there out of piety," the priest said.
Rovira said Santeria, which identifies Catholic saints with African deities, is more openly seen in Havana.
Rovira said evangelization among syncretic devotees has been difficult.
Asked why people need to combine different types of religions, Rovira explained: "It is said they have concrete problems in life for which they find no Church solutions."
Those solutions might be based on known practices of divination, supposed communication with deceased relatives, and even the attempted manipulation of the forces of nature.