Political Activist and Priest - Fidel Castro and His Jesuit Mentor
Since the USA restored diplomatic relations with Cuba in July 2015 and Pope Francis visited the Caribbean island last September, Cuba is fast becoming a popular holiday destination. But some people might be unaware that its controversial former president, Fidel Castro - who celebrated his 90th birthday last week - was educated by the Jesuits.
Fidel Castro wasn’t the best student. Known for being a troublemaker, he was taught in two other schools before being sent to study under the Jesuits - first in the city of Santiago, and then in the famed Colegio de Belen in the capital, Havana, where he met a mentor who influenced his attitude for life.
Amando Llorente SJ was born in Spain on August 24th 1918, and followed his older brother, already a Jesuit missionary, into the Jesuit Order. He was a 24-year-old Jesuit novice when he was sent to Cuba in 1942 to finish his formation. Whilst he was a teacher at the preparatory school, he met the rebellious Fidel Castro, who excelled under his tutelage.
"The Jesuit brothers didn't even earn a wage for teaching classes, they tried to be examples of modesty and honesty," says Dolores Guerra, a researcher at the government-run Cuban History Institute.
At the end of his course in 1944, Castro had turned his attitude around and was even awarded a prize for discipline.
In 1945, the priest wrote in the school yearbook: “Fidel Castro, has the makings of a hero, the history of his motherland will have to speak about him.¨
He left Cuba to continue his Theology studies at the Pontifical University of Comillas in Madrid and Heythrop College in London, before being ordained a priest on the 8th September 1948. He was reassigned to Cuba in 1950 as director of a retreat house, and was still in contact with Fidel as the political landscape of Cuba changed around them. Llorente says of this time;
“He confessed to me that he had lost the faith, and I responded to him: ‘Fidel, one thing is to lose your faith and another thing is to lose your dignity.”
This continuing relationship between political activist and priest didn’t stop Castro expelling the Society of Jesus from Cuba in 1961, and Llorente resettled in Miami where he founded a branch of the Agrupacion Catolica Universitaria, a Christian community for men who are university graduates and professionals, based on Jesuit formation principles.
Fr. Llorente died in the US on 28th April 2010 at the age of 91. Cardinal Sean O’Malley wrote in memory that Llorente “gave more retreats in one year than the majority of Jesuits give in their lifetime”.
Image from the Catholic News Agency article Sep 20, 2015.