The Deacon's Bench

It’s a dramatic move for the Communist island nation — and a sign, perhaps, that the country is turning a corner:

With Cuban President Raúl Castro and several high-profile church leaders from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Italy and the Bahamas present, along with a delegation of priests from the United States led by Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, the opening of San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary could spur a new age for the Cuban Catholic church.

The seminary, housed on 55 acres about 10 miles southeast of the Cuban capital, replaces a facility that was taken over by the regime in 1966 and made into a military barracks and later a policy academy, following a common practice after the revolution of clamping down on and repurposing religious schools and institutions.

Pope John Paul II blessed the first stone for the seminary during a historic visit to the island in 1998. Construction officially began in 2006 with donations from churches in several countries, including the United States. The complex can house 100 seminarians and has a rectory, library, chapel and lecture hall.

“It’s significant for being the first project of this magnitude to be built during the revolution. . . . At this moment, it means that the relationship is becoming normal,” the executive secretary of the Episcopal Conference of Cuba, José Félix Pérez, told Agence France-Presse.

The opening comes after many months during which the church has negotiated with the Cuban government and gained the release of dozens of political prisoners — many of whom have been sent to Spain. The government has promised to release several more prisoners by a Sunday deadline.

Read more, and see pictures, here.

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