I never had the fortune of meeting Bishop Agustin Roman, and that’s too bad because of his significance in and to the Cuban community in exile. It was only fitting, I guess, that he passed away just outside the place he built, the Shrine to the Ermita de la Caridad (Shrine of the Lady of Charity) on the bayfront in Miami. It’s too bad I never really appreciated the work of Bishop Roman until very late in his life.
I do have one Bishop Roman story to share, however. A story related to me and others at a Cursillo retreat two years ago. At the retreat house’s chapel in South Dade, there’s a crucifix over the altar, just like in any Catholic sanctuary. This crucifix, however, was totally different. One of the arms of the crucified Christ was chopped in half and one of the feet had been cut off. Why, we wondered, was a mutilated crucifix doing over the altar?
We were told the story on the last day of the weekend retreat: that crucifix was at a chapel at Opa-Locka Airport during the Mariel boatlift of 1980. At the time, Opa-Locka Airport was being used as a processing facility for the refugees and many of those who didn’t have anyone to claim them stayed at the site until they were either claimed by relatives or sent to another location. The chapel at the airport was used by the Archdiocese of Miami to provide care and basic religious instruction to those refugees whose stay at the airport was indefinite. Since most of these refugees grew up in an atheist country with little or no knowledge of God, it was probably the first time in their lives that they received any kind of religious instruction. Unfortunately, a lot of these people were violent criminals who were part of the jail-emptying employed by Fidel Castro to get rid of “undesirables” during the migration. One night, some of the refugees decided to play a cruel trick and mutilated the chapel’s crucifix.
The next morning, Father Agustin Roman showed up at the chapel and discovered the mutilated crucifix on the floor. According to another priest who showed up a few minutes later, Fr. Roman, upon seeing what was done, lay prostrate on the floor in anguish. Anguish at the total loss of faith in God among the current generation in Cuba. “What has happened to my island?”, Fr. Roman cried out. For a man who was so dedicated to his people, the imagery was crushing. This story as context makes his later efforts to mediate a peaceful resolution to prison riots involving Mariel refugees all the more admirable. He never gave up on his people and saw God in everyone, even those marginalized by society. That crucifix, now at the retreat house, serves as a memory and reminder that no matter how much we may try to destroy God, He remains with us.
Padre Roman, que descanses en paz.
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