Father Rolando Montes believes growing up in the island nation of Cuba has helped make him a better Catholic.
“It taught me something that I still try to live: Do not be afraid of the cross! The cross is meant to be part of the Christian life,” he told a gathering of parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes in Columbia Oct. 3.
“Be afraid of the sin,” he continued. “Be afraid of betraying the Lord, not of the cross. The cross is a blessing.”
The priest, who goes by Fr. Rolo, is spending a semester at the University of Missouri while working on a degree in institutional communication from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.
He drew laughs, gasps and wide-eyed stares while talking about his road to the Priesthood and some of the abundant opportunities for leading people in his beloved homeland to Christ.
Located about 90 miles off the coast of Florida, Cuba is a traditionally Catholic country. It was colonized by Spain in the 1500s and gained its independence in 1898.
Cuba’s relationship with the United States was strained for decades after the Marxist revolution of 1959. Diplomatic ties were restored in 2014.
Only one new church has been built in Cuba since 1960, when the population was around 6 million. It is now close to 11 million.
Church-state relations were especially difficult for the first 30 years after the revolution but have improved somewhat since then.
“If by Catholic, you mean people who come to church, we have maybe 5 percent,” Fr. Rolo stated. “But if Catholic means people who appreciate the Church and recognize themselves as Catholic, it would be around 60 percent.”
People can receive religious education in their parishes, but there are no Catholic schools.
“The education at all levels is Marxist, even for Catholic people,” said Fr. Rolo.
The Church has little access to public media, and the Internet is still an expensive luxury for many people in Cuba, he said.
Yet, people remain hungry for and receptive to the Good News of Jesus Christ.
“This presents an absolutely tremendous opportunity for the Church and for them,” said Fr. Rolo.
Fr. Rolo grew up Catholic, but his parents could not practice their faith because his dad was an instructor at a government-run university.
“He would have lost his job,” said Fr. Rolo. “I was baptized in a church (130 miles) from my house, in a closed church, with the doors locked.”
His uncle is a priest of what Fr. Rolo calls “the hero generation.”
“They became priests between 1960 and 1989, when the Church was very persecuted,” said Fr. Rolo. “To become a priest in those years was heroic.”
The younger priest recounted how his pastor and his parish catechist made sacrifices and suffered for their faith.
“I grew up in a suffering community,” he said. “I learned a lot from this Church of my childhood.”
When he was 11, he attended a Catholic retreat. The leader gave a clear explanation and passionate witness about Who Jesus Christ is and why it matters.
“At the time for reflection, I was wondering, ‘Oh, if Jesus Christ is Who this man says, Jesus Christ is worthy of someone to give His whole life to Him,’” Fr. Rolo recalled.
“Because Jesus Christ is absolutely great!”
Fr. Rolo was admitted to an academically-challenging boarding school.
Students were not allowed to talk openly about God. The only religious book they could have was a Bible, because it was considered a cultural book.
Fr. Rolo shared living quarters with 60 other boys. When many of them noticed his Bible, they started asking him questions.
“I think I spent two weeks explaining the faith to them,” he said. “Every evening, we had around an hour of explanation and more questions and more questions and more questions and more questions.”
They wound up forming a prayer group.
The future priest got permission from several his classmates’ pastors to prepare them for the sacraments.
“I was a catechist for them,” he said. “So when they went to their houses and to their parishes, they could receive baptism.”
Getting caught could have gotten them expelled.
Fr. Rolo also joined another group of Catholic students who met and prayed in secret at the school.
They found abundant strength and energy in 1998 when Pope St. John Paul II became the first Pope to visit their country.
“I can’t even explain what a great blessing that was to Cuba!” said Fr. Rolo.
Around that time, he began asking himself what he would need to do in order to be truly happy.
“I have to do what I was created for,” he reasoned.
How could he figure out what that is?
“I needed the help of someone who knows me and who loves me,” he said.
So he turned to God in fervent, persistent prayer — “daytime, afternoon, evening and night.”
“What is Your purpose for me?” he would ask. “What is Your will? Why am I alive?”
“Take me to heaven”
Fr. Rolo eventually asked a priest to help him figure out what God wanted him to be.
“I knew I didn’t want to be a priest!” he said, laughing. “I just wanted to do the will of God.”
The priest promised just to ask him questions and let the Holy Spirit answer them.
As Fr. Rolo continued praying, he gradually fell more deeply in love with the life he was being called to.
“I didn’t want it, but there it was, every day, more and more,” he said.
He visited a Shrine of the Blessed Mother in order to try to think of other things.
“But that just made it worse,” he said, laughing.
He finally quit fighting and decided to enter the seminary and to accept whatever consequences that would come with pursuing the Priesthood.
That, he believes, was when God showed him the way.
His uncle, the priest, sent him a letter filled with joy and helpful advice.
“He told me, ‘Don’t be afraid of the cross,’” Fr. Rolo recalled. “He told me, ‘Take the tabernacle chapel as your favorite place for your whole life, and you’ll be happy.’”
After nine years of studies and formation, Fr. Rolo was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Camagüey, Cuba, on Aug. 15, 2009.
It was the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven.
He remembers telling the Blessed Mother: “If you take me with you to heaven, I will be able to make it. If you don’t, it will be difficult for me. So take me to heaven!”
Fr. Rolo’s first priestly assignment was to a parish of about 75,000 people.
“The parish is not the people in church,” he noted. “It’s the territory. We have to go to them. We have to visit them. We have to invite them. And they are happy to receive us.”
He spent “three beautiful years” ministering in that area when an invitation came for priests of his diocese to assist the bishop of the Guantanamo diocese in serving a vast, poor and isolated parish there.
“It’s a mountain place, and there are several towns without electric lights, no towers for cell phones, no Internet, and not a lot of food,” said Fr. Rolo.
The young priest had visited the area as a seminarian, fallen in love with the people there had asked Mother Mary to help him go back there sometime.
Somewhat shocked at Fr. Rolo’s eagerness to sign up, his bishop agreed to send him out on mission.
“And that was the paradise of my Priesthood!” said Fr. Rolo. “I have been so happy in this place! Because when you do something for the Lord, He does very much for you. It’s very real. I’m a witness to that.”
During that time, Pope Francis told Cardinal Jaime Ortega, now deceased, of Havana that he would like to visit Cuba.
Organizers of the September 2015 visit chose Fr. Rolo to be an advisor to the Cuban media during the Pope’s visit.
“It was beautiful, very heavy work,” the priest recalled.
The Pope said and did many things during the trip, keeping the media and their priest advisor very busy.
“I was working with journalists of the first level in the government,” said Fr. Rolo. “I was not a journalist, but I prayed a lot!”
He wound up not saying very much about Pope Francis.
“I spoke about Jesus Christ,” he said. “I used Pope Francis to speak about the Gospel, to explain what Jesus taught. And the Cuban people appreciated it a lot.”
Back to school
Having demonstrated a gift for evangelizing through the media, he was chosen to study institutional communication in Rome.
“Seven years after my ordination, I had to leave my priestly paradise and became a student again,” he said.
He believes the past three years in the Eternal City were time well spent.
“We are the Church, and the Church exists to communicate,” he said. “When you don’t have access to a lot of the normal ways of communicating, you really have to know how to do it.”
This year, the dean suggested that Fr. Rolo spend a semester studying in the United States at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia.
He arrived in August and will stay through mid-December.
Between classes, Fr. Rollo has been living in the Our Lady of Lourdes Rectory, helping out with Mass and the sacraments while becoming fluent in English.
“I’m learning a lot of things from the blessed priests here and from each of you,” he told the parishioners. “I thank the Lord every day for each of you.”
Fr. Rolo is hopeful about the future of the Church in his country.
When changes come, it will be important for the Church to be ready, he said.
He said the most important thing anyone can do to help is to “pray seriously, pray heavy.”
“Intercessory prayer is so, so, so powerful!” he said. “Believe me. We have a great power in our hands, and I feel that we don’t even realize what we have.”
He also spoke of financial opportunities to help the people through Aid to the Church in Need. Many of his people are very poor, and the Church helps them with whatever resources are available.
He believes that when it comes to leading people to the Lord, the most important thing is knowing “Who you belong to.”
“If you belong to Christ, if you really believe that, then you inspire people by the way you live,” he said.