The Faith of Father Varela and His Path to Sainthood


By Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia
President of the Pontifical Council for the Family
Postulator of the Cause for Beatification of Father Varela

“Gusting winds of holiness throughout the Americas”
On May 2, 2015, Pope Francis celebrated a Mass at the North American College in Rome in anticipation of the canonization of St. Junípero Serra. The great hope that he expressed in his homily was that “gusting winds of holiness would sweep throughout the Americas in anticipation of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.”

That hope, and the gradual re-opening of relations between Cuba and the United States, makes us think of the life and work of another great missionary who preached the Gospel in both those countries, in Havana and New York, the holy Cuban-American priest Father Félix Varela (1788-1835). Though he was Hispanic like St. Junípero, he lived in a different century and in a different place, thus confirming how, in the words of one Vatican official, Professor Guzmán Carriquiry, “Christianity has put down its roots in many different surroundings throughout the American continents.”

Professor Carriquiry has also pointed out that since becoming Pope, the Latin American Francis has shown the importance of North, South and Central America by proclaiming four “fast-track” American saints: Father Serra, José de Anchieta, the Apostle of Brazil, François de Laval, Evangelizer of New France/Canada and first Bishop of Quebec, and Marie of the Incarnation, a mother, a widow and an Ursuline nun in Canada – all missionaries. In a “fast-track” canonization, there is no requirement for the declaration of a specific miracle after Beatification, just a history of popular devotion and a reputation for holiness and miraculous interventions over time.

In a Symposium held in Havana on February 18-21, 2016 dealing with the life and work of Father Varela, we made our own the Pope’s hope that a “wind of holiness” will blow in the Americas, and that was the context within which we gathered to reflect on Father Varela’s contributions to the Church and on his path to sainthood. Our task was to examine both his priestly holiness and his commitment to building a just society for all. Sometimes these two aspects of his life have been separated, but in reality there is a constant that unites his priestly ministry in New York and his activity as a teacher and statesman earlier in Cuba. It was his faith that guided and inspired him in both sets of circumstances. And that is his legacy that deserves to be better understood and spread throughout our Church.

Status of his Cause for Beatification.
Cardinal Ortega of Havana, well-aware of Father Varela’s importance for all the Church, is anxious to accelerate the process of Varela’s Beatification. And he is right. I am grateful to him for asking me to become Postulator of Father Varela’s cause, and the Havana Symposium was a perfect opportunity to discuss where we stand in that regard. The first important date is July 25, 1983, when the Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints decided that the process would be overseen by the Archdiocese of Havana, where Father Varela was born in 1788, rather than in the Diocese of Saint Augustine, Florida, where he died in 1853.

The next step was taken on February 23, 1995, when the Cuban Bishops’ Conference opened the necessary investigations, which were conducted mostly in Cuba, and were concluded on December 6, 1996. The Positio, a volume containing the results of those investigations, was submitted to the Vatican on October 3, 1997. It is essentially a documentary study, without any testimony from eyewitnesses, since the process began 143 years after Father Varela’s death.

Unfortunately, the original Positio was determined to be inadequate, because it did not devote sufficient attention to the question of Father Varela’s holiness, and in 1998 a supplementary investigation was undertaken in the Archdiocese of New York, where Father Varela had labored for almost twenty-five years. The Consultors to the Congregation, theologians and historians, had agreed that the first document indeed showed Father Varela as a man of great cultural, philosophical, patriotic and political importance for Cuba, but it revealed little about him as a priest committed to the pastoral needs of his flock and heroic in his virtue. One of the Consultors, for example, wrote: “It must be emphasized that the Servant of God Father Félix Varela y Morales deserves a historical-critical biography that shows what makes him a true ecclesial model and not just a patriotic and reforming statesman (qualities which of course do not exclude holiness).Only with such a biography can we propose him for beatification as a good, zealous, memorable priest, and an example of Christian virtue to an eminent degree.”

The New York research was published in a second Positio volume and unanimously approved by the Congregation on December 13, 2011. That was followed on March 6, 2012, by the Congregation’s nihil obstat allowing the cause for beatification to begin, and by its decree dated March 14, 2012 declaring Father Varela to be “Venerable” and to have practiced Christian virtues to a heroic degree. In this second phase, the excellent work of the former Postulators, the Christian Brothers Morelli and Meoli, as well as of their collaborators, received well-deserved praise.

In his final report, which was favorable to Father Varela’s cause, the “Promotor of Justice,” formerly known as the “Devil’s Advocate” by reason of the severity with which anyone in that position is required to examine the Positio, requested support for the “publication of a new biography of the Servant of God, with a view to his eventual beatification … such a biography, based on what has been presented to the Congregation, should meet accepted professional standards and should concentrate especially on the virtues of this great priest that were developed and more clearly manifested during the almost twenty-five years that he ministered in New York. It was there that he carried out his extensive pastoral activities, without seeking any ecclesiastical preferment—even though he was rumored to be under consideration for appointment as Archbishop of New York.

He took care of the poor, the sick, and his brother priests with ardent apostolic zeal while living in true evangelical poverty.” The Promotor of Justice emphasized that “attention to his virtues is recommended by the theologians in order that his holiness can become better known than the political influence he might have exerted at certain times in his life. His heroic priestly identity was exemplary for the virtues he practiced, clearly not as a forerunner of Liberation Theology, but rather as a good pastor who cared for his flock in every way “in order that they might have abundant life.” Without going into further detail on this point, that later research, which was exhaustive and which settled the “open questions with respect to his thought and activity,” incentivizes us to understand more thoroughly how his ministry can relate to the current situation of the Cuban Church and Cuban people.

Heroic Virtues and Reputation for Holiness
Let me say something about the criteria according to which a cause for beatification proceeds. What is necessary is a determination that Father Varela practiced virtue without hesitation, with determination and with constancy, thus confirming the action of God’s grace in his life. Moreover, he must have practiced virtue “heroically,” but what does that mean? Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) wrote the following: “to be heroic, a Christian virtue must be practiced generously, cheerfully and without hesitation (prompte, delectabiliter, expedite), to a greater degree than usual, and for a supernatural purpose.” If indeed generosity, cheerfulness and readiness are characteristics of the practice of every virtue, it is the quality of being practiced to a greater degree than usual that is the hallmark of heroism. It is behavior whose goodness far surpasses normal expectations. Heroic virtue requires exceptional boldness that amazes and attracts, and that reveals such a growth in Christ that the one who practices it becomes an “Alter Christus” – another Christ.

In the process, it was verified that Father Varela’s virtue was well-known in addition to being heroic. To understand that part of the process, the confirmation of fama sanctitatis, a reputation for holiness, it is important to understand what is meant by the phrases Vox Populi, Vox Dei and Sensus Fidelium. The Church has always attempted to confirm the vox populi by carefully verifying the facts – taking testimony relative to the candidate’s holiness, martyrdom (if in question) and the presence of divine graces and favors obtained through the intercession of the candidate. Here is how Pope Benedict XIV described fama sanctitatis: “A reputation for holiness is in general the common opinion about the purity and integrity of life of a Servant of God, and about the specific virtues continuously practiced by him or her, in diverse circumstances and to a greater degree than is commonly seen in other good men and women; together with the miracles worked by God through the Servant’s intercession, the result of all that being that devotion to the person arises in one or more locations, that the person is invoked by those in need, and that in the judgment of many reliable individuals the person is considered worthy of being included by the Holy See in the ranks of the Blesseds and the Saints.”

To be considered authentic, a reputation for holiness must also be endorsed by persons who are well-known for their competence and balanced judgment. With respect to Father Varela there are several testimonies found in the archives of various American dioceses, but there do not seem to be many in Cuba. Nevertheless, it must be emphasized that fama sanctitatis does not refer only to the past, but also, and sometimes principally, to the present; and I think that there is a good bit of work to be done to increase present-day devotion to Father Varela in Cuba. His holiness must become attractive. It is not just a question of admiring his outstanding personality but also of fostering among priests, religious and the people of God an imitation of his holiness.

His true depth must become better known, particularly the depth of his interior life, which was the basis for his cultural activity, his teaching career, and his support for the separate identity of the Cuban people. The question to consider is thus the following: How can devotion to Father Varela be increased? This question is important for a variety of reasons, but it has a particular influence on an important step in the canonization process—the determination of a miracle—since in general a miracle is the result of prayer for the intercession of the Servant of God, and that prayer is generally offered in the context of established devotion.

Miracle and Beatification
The Cause of Father Varela has been approved. His practice of the theological and human virtues, and of the evangelical counsels, has been declared heroic. What is needed now is a miracle. Documentation has been prepared with respect to several possibilities, but a final decision is yet to come. A miracle is an indispensable step in the process of Beatification of an individual not considered a martyr, because it is seen as a sign of the divine life that the Servant of God shares in. The miracle is a divine seal placed on a human determination of the heroic virtues of a Servant of God. A miraculous event – whether it be a healing or the escape from a dangerous situation – must be scientifically inexplicable.

In addition, there must be a causal and temporal connection between the invocation of the Servant of God’s intercession and the extraordinary event. According to the thinking of St. Thomas Aquinas, true miracles can happen only by divine power. God causes them for the benefit of man, to give witness to the holiness of a person. A miracle is something that is naturally impossible. A miracle is an exceptional event, the result of a special intervention by God which surpasses the normal course of nature and happens in order to relieve human suffering and show God’s personal love for mankind.

Once a miracle is approved, the first phase of the process ends with a proclamation that the Servant of God is “Blessed.” and that public devotion to him or her is allowed in his or her diocese or country. When Pope Benedict XVI decreed that Beatification ceremonies would be held in the Servant of God’s diocese rather than in Rome, it became possible for the Servant’s local church to become a more direct participant in the process.

The “Social” Holiness of Father Varela
I still have not fully appreciated how important the Beatification of Father Varela would be for the Cuban people. I do believe it would be a truly extraordinary event and would be truly unifying for the people. In that context, I would like to point out an important aspect of what Father Varela means for Cuba and the United States. His faith has a clear “social” dimension, and his witness in this regard is truly important for the Church and for all society. It is not new or surprising that Faith has a “social” dimension. That dimension has always been recognized. Faith is “social” by its very nature, It is not given by God simply to enable a believer to close him or herself within his or her own private world.

Faith is a gift that allows a believer to be inserted into that “us” that the “Spirit of Division” – the Devil – continually seeks to destroy. As I see it, Father Varela gives us a model of how to believe. His life was not divided into a political phase and a pastoral phase, first in Cuba and then in the United States, first secular and then religious. Of course, everyone is free to concentrate on the aspect of Father Varela’s example that he or she judges most useful, but to understand him completely we must understand the one source from which all his thought and work sprang, his Christian Faith. And that faith has a basic “social” dimension.

The social dimension of Father Varela’s faith does not come only from that specifically Latin American Catholicism in which the Church, and particularly the clergy, identifies with the highest aspirations of the American peoples. It comes as well from his understanding of the Faith as it appears in Christian tradition and that leads believers to become part of the fabric of the societies in which they live.

Pope Benedict XVI gives an example of this social dimension in the work of St. John Chrysostom: “He understood that it is not enough to give alms, to help the poor from time to time. We must create a new structure, a new model for society, a model based on the New Testament. This new society reveals itself in the young Church. The old idea of the “polis” had to be replaced by the new idea of a city inspired by Christian Faith.” This passage is useful in my view and can help us understand Varela’s work. Likewise, the Second Vatican Council codified the necessary “social” dimension of Christian Faith. Father Varela, certainly in his own way, lived that dimension fully, and I believe it is up to us to act like the wise steward in the Gospel and bring forth from the storehouse of the Church things old and new.

That is, from the legacy of Father Varela we must draw the strength to develop a faith that can plumb the depths of contemporary society in order to transform it and free it from the slaveries that keep it down. An the need to do that is urgent. Thinking of the farsightedness of Father Varela in working for the abolition of slavery, I am reminded of how hesitantly we Christians today oppose the death penalty. It is by listening to wise and holy persons that we understand the Gospel better, and that is what Father Varela did when he was opposing slavery.

Christians today must bring the leaven of the Gospel to contemporary society. The world has become globalized but not more united. Markets are globalized but solidarity is not. We are disoriented and afraid of a world that has become too big. We close ourselves within our own individualism, our own little backyards. No longer do we think that “being together” is the key to survival. Now we survive by “staying apart.” There is a profound crisis in society and in the numerous forms of community that we recognize today, from political parties to municipalities, from the community of nations to the family itself, the basic unity of society. The world has become globalized, peoples have drawn closer but have not become brothers. We know each other better but that hasn’t led us to love each other more. Indeed, since the world seems to have become too big, we are tempted to limit ourselves to what we can see around us.

By its very nature, the Gospel pushes us to go beyond our limits and unite as peoples. Christian salvation is not attained individually but as a community; we are not saved alone, but rather as part of a people. The Second Vatican Council expressed this clearly: “God has not willed the salvation of mankind as individuals but by gathering them into a people.” And it says that the Church’s divine mission is to be “a sign and instrument of the unity of the human race.”

The great patriarch Athenagoras, a founder of modern ecumenism and a great spiritual leader, liked to say: “Churches are sisters; Peoples are Brothers.” It is within this optic that we should consider the recent meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill in Havana. And the Letter to Diognetus should be read as well. It presents Christians as the soul of the world: “what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world. The soul acts in all the parts of the body, and Christians do the same in the city and the world. The soul lives in the body, but it is not of the body; Christians live in the world but are not of the world.” We know that no comparison is ever exact, but the thought here is clear: Christians are called to be the soul of the world, the spiritual principle of communion among those who live in the city and the world. Isn’t that what Father Varela was, both for Cuba and for the Catholics who gathered in his parishes in New York?

If Christians were looking only for their own personal salvation, if they shut themselves up in their own backyards, if they lived their faith only as individuals, they would betray the commandment given them by Christ which is analogous to that which governs the relationship between body and soul. Without the soul, the parts of the body would be disjointed and have no unity. They need to be “animated” and “bound together.” The whole Church and each believer must hold all of society dear. Nothing that is good and human should be alien to believers. The Christian community, no matter how small, carries in its heart the hopes and fears of a society of which it is called to be the soul. Continuing, the Letter to Diognetus notes, “God has given Christians a task they may not shirk.” Christians not only can, but must, commit themselves to society, well knowing that their home is above. The fascinating and serious task of the Christian, nay, of the whole Christian community is to make God present in the lives of mankind. It is an ongoing task, and in many ways throughout the ages Christians have striven to carry it to completion.

Christians – Leaven of Unity
I ask myself whether the time has come to begin, or better to multiply, our investigations into the lives of more of those Christians who lived their faith heroically on the American continents in order to build a more human society. I’m thinking for example of Blessed Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was martyred at the altar because he had chosen to defend the poor against oppression and called for a structural change in society. For too long his cause was fiercely opposed because he was considered “political,” and an unbreachable wall of distrust was built around him. Pope Francis even spoke of “martyrdom after death” in his regard.

His Beatification in a sense created new possibilities for examination of the lives of believers who have given those lives for others, either through the shedding of their blood or through the witness of their work, to build a more human society. Bringing to the altars others like Romero—I’m thinking of his friend Rutilio Grande and the two peasants killed with him, for whom the process of Beatification has begun – is a way to highlight their example among the People of God.

It would in fact be useful to compose a Latin American geography of the “new martyrs,” bishops, priests, religious and countless laypersons, who shed their blood for the faith in the last century. Their Christian witness has been priceless for the whole continent, and it shows how deeply rooted the faith is in the Americas.Still however, it is not uncommon to see faith contaminated with individualism. Pope Benedict’s severe judgment about such a faith is instructive.

In his Encyclical Spe Salvi, he asks with a certain bitterness, “How could the idea have developed that Jesus’s message is narrowly individualistic and aimed only at each person singly? How did we arrive at this interpretation of the “salvation of the soul” as a flight from responsibility for the whole, and how did we come to conceive the Christian project as a selfish search for salvation which rejects the idea of serving others? (16) Indeed, doesn’t this religious individualism end up being an accomplice of that cultural individualism that is breaking down our contemporary society?

In the Encyclical, Pope Benedict urged a serious examination of conscience in this matter, noting that the Letter to the Hebrews in several places used the term “city” to represent the salvation to which we are called. Salvation comes in the context of the “city” of society, the exact opposite of the individualism that more and more characterizes our contemporary culture. And Benedict continues that sin is “understood by the Fathers as the destruction of the unity of the human race, as fragmentation and division.” (14)

I think our reflections on this subject encourage us to re-write in today’s language the witness of Father Varela. He helps us to live our faith as a force for change in society. Seeing his example, we can offer our own contribution with the same enthusiasm that he had for helping the societies of his time to live according to justice and truth.

The last book of the Bible describes the new Jerusalem to which all direct their steps. The “holy city” is the future of mankind, the place to which it is destined. It is the dream entrusted to Christians so that they can live it, demonstrate it to all and to the extent possible begin to build it. Father Varela is among those who have made their own this dream of God and who have become its servants. First in Cuba and then in New York, he sought to transmit to society the dream that he had received with the eyes of faith. And for this reason he has full citizenship in the city that he dreamed of and that he prepared for while still on Earth.

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