JARUCO, Cuba (AP) – In the mid-1970s, a recently ordained priest trekked the Cuban countryside, defying the communist government by distributing hand-printed religious pamphlets to townspeople bold enough to open their doors.
At the height of Cuba's anti-religious sentiment, the man known as Father Juanito was tolerated thanks to his soft-spoken manner and unbending will, say those who followed his rise. His admirers say that personality served him well when he became bishop of the eastern city of Camaguey and launched an intensive outreach to the poor, arranging aid for needy pregnant women and diverting religious processions off main streets into the humblest neighborhoods.
"He's an inexhaustible worker, and not in comfortable locations, but in difficult and tricky ones," said Maribel Moreno, secretary and archivist for Camaguey's archdiocese for two decades.
In more than a dozen interviews, those who know Juan de la Caridad García said they expect him to transform the Cuban Catholic Church in his new post as archbishop of Havana, which he assumed late last month. After three decades under Cardinal Jaime Ortega, a skilled diplomat comfortable in the halls of power, Cuba's most important non-governmental institution is being led by a man focused on rebuilding the church's relationship with ordinary Cubans.
Ortega built warmer church relations with the Cuban government, winning important freedoms for the church. He even helped negotiate U.S.-Cuban detente, carrying a secret papal message from Havana to Washington. The cardinal attended diplomatic receptions in Havana and cultural galas with high-ranking government officials. He gave television interviews to Cuban and international stations and spoke at major universities overseas.
When Pope Francis appointed García to head the Archdiocese of Havana in April, the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops highlighted García's "simplicity of life, apostolic dedication, prayer and a life of virtue."
"The overwhelming effort and the mood will be eminently pastoral, even though diplomatic and political matters must be tended to," said the Rev. Ignacio Zaldumbide, a friend since they were university and seminary students.
García's pastoral focus was on display one recent Sunday when he left Havana's grand cathedral to celebrate Mass at the St. John the Baptist church in the small town of Jaruco, in central Mayabeque province. He handed out sweets to children and joked with congregants about how some town residents focused more on drinking than religion and attended church once every 40 years.
"Obviously there are many things to work on, many places to spread the word, but I'm not going to start from zero. The previous bishops and Cardinal Jaime Ortega have done a lot," García told The Associated Press after Mass. "The church lives the Gospel, announces the Gospel and denounces what's wrong in order for progress to be made."
His predecessor has been criticized by dissidents and anti-Castro Cuban-Americans for praising achievements of the Cuban revolution and maintaining a non-confrontational relationship with the government, even as he helped negotiate the release of prisoners including those held on political charges. In retirement, Ortega will live in a former seminary in Old Havana, where some church observers believe he will serve for some time as the church's main emissary to the Cuban government as García tends to his flock.
However the responsibilities are divided, García said he doesn't intend to change the church's approach to the government.
"I think the cardinal did a lot of good," García said. "There's a slightly negative image of him in some places and that's false. I am going to continue what he did."
García said he shares the government's stated vision of gradual reform in Cuba, which is slowly opening its economy to private enterprise and granting Cubans a limited number of new personal freedoms within a single-party system criticized as the last undemocratic government in Latin America.
The church doesn't want "capitalism or anything of the sort, rather that socialism progresses in a just, equal and brotherly society," the new archbishop said.
Born on June 11, 1948, in Camaguey, García was the first of six children of an observant Catholic railroad administrator and a homemaker. Resisting the atheist ideology of Cuba's 1959 socialist revolution, he entered seminary and was ordained a priest in 1972, becoming part of a persecuted minority. At that time, Communist Party member broadcast propaganda on speakers placed in the doors of churches, and the government frequently confiscated church property.
In the late 1960s, García's bureaucrat father died of a heart attack in prison after he was held on charges related to the mismanagement of the state railroad system where he worked, Zaldumbide said.
García showed little bitterness after his father's death, and no fear of resisting the government's repression of Catholicism, say those who know him.
"People stayed in the church despite grand difficulties at the start of the revolution. One can move forward, talking and looking toward the future," García said. "One doesn't have to live in the past."
Moreno remembered García rising at dawn to pray and personally deliver invitations for children to march in religious processions. He assembled lists of pregnant women to receive help and once lent his towel, a rare commodity, to church volunteers bathing an alcoholic man.
García frequently took a beat-up jeep to distribute pamphlets and lead services in far-flung villages, "when we could only dream of missionary work in Cuba, because we had to be careful leaving the walls of the church," Zaldumbide said.
Named auxiliary bishop of Camaguey in 1997 and archbishop of the diocese in 2002, García negotiated closely with local communist functionaries over expanding the church's social outreach, said Miguel Angel Ortiz, director of the Catholic charity Caritas in the city.
"We always talked about a path of sowing confidence with the government," Ortiz said. "We tried to not let the past weigh on our dialogue."