Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega leaves a church leadership panel

Cuba’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega has been replaced as vice president of the Conference of Cuban Catholic Bishops, fueling speculation that Pope Francis will soon appoint his successor in the communist-ruled nation.

Ortega submitted his resignation as archbishop of Havana in 2011 after turning 75, as required by church rules. But Pope Benedict XVI asked him to stay on until after his visit to Cuba and the 400th anniversary of the island’s patron saint, both last year.

And after his election in March, Francis also asked Ortega to stay on and give him time to consider a replacement. But the pope is now said to be getting ready to name a new Havana archbishop and — very likely but technically not required — a new cardinal.

The Bishops’ Conference announced Thursday that it replaced Ortega as its vice president when it elected a new leadership board at its November meeting. Virtually all other members were reelected. Cuba has 11 dioceses.

“They are clearly preparing for his replacement,” said Enrique Lopez Oliva, a retired University of Havana professor who taught church history.

Ortega, named cardinal in 1994, received both praise and criticism as he sought to expand the role of the church while avoiding clashes with a regime that was officially atheist from 1962 to 1992 and still maintains ultra-tight controls on religious activities.

His meetings with ruler Raúl Castro in 2010 helped win the release of more than 125 political prisoners, but almost all went directly from prison to Havana’s international airport for flights to exile in Spain.

Dagoberto Valdes, editor of the lay Catholic magazine Convivencia, said that about half a dozen bishops have been mentioned as possible successors but cautioned that “no one knows anything until the Holy See (Vatican) speaks.”

Dionisio García Ibañez, archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second-largest city and reelected as president of the bishops’ conference, is considered the most likely replacement for Ortega, Lopez Oliva said in a phone call from Havana.

The 67-year-old García would be the first archbishop of Havana who came of age after the Castro revolution in 1959, he added, and likely has a more personal understanding of the ruling system. Ortega, now 77, was ordained a priest in 1964.

Garcia has openly criticized the government but also maintained some distance from outspoken Santiago priest José Conrado Rodriguez. The priest has said Garcia asked him to write a history of the 1612 discovery of the statue of the Virgin of Charity, Cuba’s patron saint, but did not offer him a new parish. He transferred to another diocesis.

Another name being mentioned is that of Marcelo Arturo Gonzalez Amador, bishop of the central city of Santa Clara since 1999 and at 56 one of the youngest bishops on the island.

“This is a bishop who has a great touch for the pastoral work, in the sense of being close to the parish,” said Valdes.

Also mentioned have been Bishops Emilio Aranguren in Holguin, also 56; Manuel Hilario de Cespedes, 69, in Matanzas; Jorge Serpa, 71, in Pinar del Rio; Juan Garcia in Camaguey; and Juan de Dios Hernandez, 65, auxiliary archbishop of Havana and a Jesuit like Francis.

There has been no word on what Ortega might do after he retires, although he is believed to be in good health and could be appointed to a top position in the Vatican.

Lopez noted that while the seven bishops have been mentioned as possible successors to Ortega as archbishop of Havana, under church regulations Pope Francis does not have to choose a bishop.

“This pope already has done some surprising things,” he said, “and maybe he will surprise us.”

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