Baseball mission aims to build bridges with Cuban youth

An American baseball sits on the infield of 26 de Julio baseball stadium in Santa Clara, Cuba, May 26 during a baseball mission trip sponsored by the Pontifical Mission Societies in the U.S. Pilot photo/Gregory L. Tracy

The Pilot, in collaboration with the Pontifical Mission Societies of the Archdiocese of Boston, recently participated in a five-day mission trip to Cuba exploring way of building youth participation in the Church through baseball. This week and next, we will present special coverage of the trip and commentary on the mission's import and impact.

In May, representatives from Boston were part of a U.S. delegation to visit Cuba with the goal of revitalizing the Church there through the common language of baseball.

The trip, organized by the national office of the Pontifical Mission Societies in New York, included professional coaches and representatives from Pontifical Mission Societies and youth ministry from around the U.S.

The trip was the first step to begin building bridges with Cuban young people who, after decades of persecution of the Church under communist rule, have never seen their parents, or in some cases even grandparents, practice the Catholic faith that was once an integral part of Cuban society. The hope is that through developing baseball programs affiliated with the Missionary Childhood Association (MCA) young people may be drawn to the Church and, in time, be formed by MCA to become catechists and evangelizers of the Church, which is again starting to grow as government restrictions have begun to ease.

Among those included in the delegation, was Maureen Heil, Director of Programs and Development for the Pontifical Mission Societies in the Archdiocese of Boston. According to Heil, Boston was asked to be represented on the trip because of Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley's long-standing and deep connection with the Catholic Church in Cuba.

Also invited by Heil to participate in the mission trip was James Spillman, the principal of Blessed Sacrament School in Walpole.

"We wanted to take the principal of an active school (in the Missionary Childhood Association program) and Blessed Sacrament really is a model (school) because they have a mission moderator, they have students who are the animators," explained Heil.

"As someone whose school already participates, he could come back and be a witness to the value of the programs as they are being played out in the missions. He would be able to share that with his peers in the archdiocese," she continued.

Though the cardinal did not attend the trip, Heil brought with her a video message from him that she played for each group of children she met in Cuba.

"Here in Boston we have many children, who like you, love to play baseball. They are also members of the Missionary Childhood Association (called 'Infancia Misionera' in Cuba) like you and are also learning to pray and sacrifice for their brothers and sisters around the world," the cardinal said in his message.

"I have visited Cuba many times. It was a special honor, though, to visit your beautiful country last September with my good friend, Pope Francis. While celebrating Mass in Holguin, he praised your local 'mission houses,' calling them 'small signs of the presence of God in our neighborhoods.' It is our hope that you, too, can be those signs of God to people around you through your membership in Infancia Misionera," the cardinal continued.

"We send warm greetings from the missionary children of Boston and our blessings to you as you enjoy your time playing baseball and building bridges of faith between our communities. God bless you," he concluded.

Santa Clara

The group of 11 travelers from around the U.S. convened at Miami International Airport to begin their five-day trip to Cuba on May 26. The destination of the flight was the city of Santa Clara, a small city almost in the geographic center of the island nation that stretches nearly 800 miles West to East. Far removed from the capital city Havana, Santa Clara seems like a place frozen in the early 20th century with horse-drawn carts perhaps even more numerous than classic American cars and where merchants roam the streets with baskets of bread, pastries or flowers calling out their goods for sale.

The group was greeted at the airport by sisters working with a local Missionary Childhood Association and was brought to the residence of the local bishop. After being offered some light refreshments of traditional Cuban crackers, pastries and juices, the group met with the sisters and children of the missionary childhood Association who spoke to the group about the work of the Missionary Childhood Association in the area, particularly in local "mission houses."

Recalling the young peoples' remarks, Heil explained that while in the United States and other developed countries the MCA is primarily a missionary education program, in mission countries like Cuba the MCA provides catechesis and faith formation and helps young people grow into leadership roles in the Church.

According to Heil, unlike youth ministry programs Americans may be more familiar with, young people never "graduate" from Missionary Childhood. Instead, as they age, MCA members simply take on more responsibility, mentoring younger children in the program and even serving as catechists for the wider community as young adults. This role as catechists is of particular significance because of the lack of priests in Cuba.

She also explained the role of the "mission houses."

"Because there are so few priests, Mass doesn't always happen in every church, every week, just like any place in the missions. So, they have designated mission houses where people come together for formation" run by religious or often lay people, Heil said, adding that mission houses can be church-owned buildings, such as small chapels, but are most often private residences.

"So it's bringing the faith into the homes again," she said.

After a brief tour of the neighboring cathedral and downtown Santa Clara, the group headed off to the local baseball stadium for their experience of baseball drills with the Missionary Childhood participants.

Arriving at the field, the group faced its first hurdle when they were denied permission to use the baseball facilities by local officials.

Despite the recent improvement of relations between the United States and Cuba, the government still maintains strict control over its people and is suspicious of any form of non-government-sponsored organization, even one as seemingly benign as a baseball team.

After some negotiations, the group was allowed to use a distant part of the outfield to run drills. Coaches on the trip, Peter Caliendo, Ralph Santana and Darrion Siler, assisted by Spillman, ran exercises for the young people on hitting, fielding and running. Even on its first day, the mission seemed to have its desired effect of drawing in local youth, as boys from the nearby neighborhood mingled with the group to participate in the drills.

After nearly an hour of drills, eventually local officials relented and the group was allowed to use the field and local youth who were there for other games joined the MCA group in a friendly game of baseball, with Siler pitching underhand to the younger children and Spillman catching.

Heil said she was struck by how "normal" the encounter was, despite language and cultural barriers.

"Listening to the chatter of people around me and (people) cheering for their own kids ... It was just a strange experience because it was so regular in some ways," she said.

That evening the group had an opportunity to experience the life of everyday Cubans as they stayed in "casas particulares," rooms rented in private homes, as sort of a bed-and-breakfast.

Camaguey

The following day, May 27, the group made the journey to the nearby city of Camaguey. Just east of Santa Clara, Camaguey is the nation's third-largest city and the birthplace of the Missionary Childhood Association in Cuba.

When the American group arrived at the diocesan center in the evening, they were met by a group of young Missionary Childhood members and their director, Enrique Cabreras, affectionately known as "Fidelito."

It was Cabreras who started the Missionary Childhood Association in Cuba just over 25 years ago.

Heil explained that Cabreras was an active Catholic in his diocese looking to start a program to engage youth when he read about the Missionary Childhood Association in an Argentine magazine. With his characteristic zeal and enthusiasm, Cabreras pushed forward seeking to have the program officially adopted in the diocese.

Though at first the local bishop resisted because of lack of resources, eventually in 1981 the Bishop of Camaguey relented and Cabreras formed the first Missionary Childhood Association program in Cuba with four young girls as members.

One of the girls would later develop a brain tumor and, as she was dying, told Cabreras that she would offer all her suffering for the success of the Missionary Childhood Association in Cuba and, indeed, shortly after her death in 1998 the Association spread throughout Cuba with Cabreras still serving as national secretary.

As in Santa Clara, on the evening of the Americans' arrival, they were met by an enthusiastic group of young MCA members who told the visitors about their work with the association. They seemed unfazed even as a blackout plunged the room into darkness and brought an abrupt end to the video slideshow they had prepared for their guests. By the light of mobile phones, the association members, most in their early to mid-teens, explained how they help form younger children for their First Holy Communions, and one young woman shared, "I like helping children who don't have the luxuries we do. I like to share the joy we get in church."

The following day, Saturday, May 28 the group met back at the diocesan center in the heart of Camaguey to begin the day of baseball training in that city.

However, as in Santa Clara, use of the planned venue was unexpectedly blocked. At the last minute, government officials informed Cabreras that the group would not be allowed to use the field as it had been planned but instructed him not to tell his American visitors. Cabreras refused, saying that as a Christian he could not lie.

Still, the group pressed on finding an alternate venue of an open cement plaza beside a local church where once again, the coaches put the children through their drills, concluding with a friendly game.

Havana and lessons learned

On Sunday, May 29, members of the delegation joined one of the local parishes active in the MCA for Mass and most prepared to return home to the United States.

Meanwhile, on Monday, May 30, three members of the delegation, including Heil, continued on to Havana, where they met with the new Archbishop of Havana, Juan Garcia Rodriguez, who had been installed only the week before.

Heil said that the new archbishop was very kind and welcoming and recounted that, speaking of the efforts to rebuild the Church in Cuba, Archbishop Garcia said, "We try to tell people not to play the numbers game here. When the spirit moves them, they will come."

"I thought, 'Wow, I think they have the right person for the job,'" Heil said.

Reacting to the trip as a whole, Heil said, "I think baseball is such a metaphor for what we're trying to teach through Missionary Childhood... because, when you put the two next to each other, it's about teamwork, fair play and having each other's back."

"One of the coaches, Pete Caliendo, said while we were there, 'That's why I love baseball, there's more than one way to play it.' It struck me because what he was trying to say to the kids was that you've got to try to feel the game, you've got to let it get inside of you so that you get your muscle memory going and I thought, 'that's what we try to teach them with their faith, too -- you have to practice it,'" she said.

"You've got to do it over and over and over so that it becomes muscle memory, so that you know your prayers, you know how to do things, so they become second nature to you. He was teaching them baseball the same way that we try to teach faith," she said.

Support for the Cuba "Field of Dreams" baseball program is currently being raised through the Pontifical Mission Societies' new "Missio" app available for Android and iOS.

Heil spoke about the importance of building awareness and support of the missions through trips like this one.

"Without us doing this work here, Fidelito can't do his work," she said, "The people all around the world, in the mission dioceses and the mission territories, they can't do their work without us."

"Unless we animate the people and tell them what their work is and how that work is being done -- that is not just building a church or building a hospital, it's the nitty-gritty of the catechist who leads the liturgy of the word service, it's that catechist at the mission house in Cuba or it's the sister who is now a nurse who teaches HIV-positive moms not to pass the virus onto their babies -- all that happens because of the work that we do and unless we tell the stories nobody is going to know. That's what we do here. We are the professional witnesses; we are the storytellers," Heil said.

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