One evening two years ago, Bishop Agustín Román limited his supper to a handful of grapes. Urged by Father Fabio Arango to eat a healthy diet he answered that he felt no appetite. As was his custom, he helped his fellow priest wash and dry the dishes at the rectory. Then it was time for him to teach the evening catechism classes at the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity, a routine that he had carried out with apostolic zeal since 1968.
For the first time ever, he did not arrive.
He died that evening holding the hand of the Lord and with the pectoral cross over his ailing heart. On his right hand was the ring symbolizing his office as bishop, and it bore the silhouette of Our Lady of Charity’s protective robe.
A farmer by birth and spirit, he lived in a frugal and humble manner, continuing the lifestyle he experienced in his youth. He grew up in a shack without electricity or running water on a small farm leased by his hardworking father, Rosendo. He remembered having “only the most basic needs in life.” But among his few belongings, in Miami, he cherished a beautiful jewel — the episcopal ring of his former bishop in Cuba, Alberto Martín Villaverde, who consecrated him as a priest for the service of the Church.
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The story of the gold ring with a semiprecious blue gemstone — a silent witness of countless blessings imparted by Bishop Martín — its secret voyage to Miami through diplomatic channels and its eventual delivery into Bishop Román’s custody may constitute an untold chapter in the life of the spiritual father of the Cuban Catholic exile community.
The two rings held together represent a Cuban church split by a long exile, yet one that remains hopeful of its eventual unification. This episode is a testimony of Bishop Román’s humility and devotion to the people of God that he served.
“Bishop Martín was my spiritual father,” said Bishop Román, in an exclusive series of interviews with me in 2012. We recorded these just before he died as the foundation for his biography. “He had great influence on my spiritual life, first, because of his vision, he had a very precious view of reality, and he guided me very well, with great respect.”
His bright beacon
Barely 33 years old, Alberto Martín was consecrated as Bishop of the Diocese of Matanzas in 1938 — the youngest bishop in the Americas at the time. In his daily life, he did not wear the distinctive symbols characteristic of Catholic bishops, with the exception of his ring, which he caressed lovingly while speaking.
Years later, he founded a seminary in Colón, in the Province of Matanzas east of Havana, focused on “belated vocations,” such as that of a country young man named Agustín “Aleido” Román who belonged to the lay group Catholic Action. It was Bishop Martín who personally opened the door of the Chancery when Aleido went to visit for the first time, and it was also he who encouraged the future Bishop Román to continue his theological studies in Montreal, under the aegis of the Quebec Foreign Missions Society. In the summer of 1959, Aleido returned to Cuba to be ordained. Wearing the ring, Bishop Martín placed his hands on Aleido’s head and called upon the Holy Spirit. His hopes of becoming a priest crystalized.
As the Cuban political environment began to change, Martín realized that the new communist regime posed great perils for the Cuban people and became one of the most vigorous ecclesial voices denouncing the abuse of power and political deceit of the revolution. He delivered the closing speech for one of the largest Catholic events in Cuba’s history: the National Catholic Congress — a loud cry of faith raised in Havana by a million people against the ideology of a government that seemed to threaten their religious freedom.
The following year, at the age of 56, death overcame Bishop Martín. His body lay in state at the Cathedral of San Carlos de Matanzas and his two sisters, Amelia and Micaela, who lived in a house on the bishopric, noticed that his hands were swelling. If this continued, it would be impossible to remove his ring. They consulted with members of the family and clergy who agreed that it should be removed. This symbol of the bishop’s nuptial bond with the Church would be kept by the sisters.
Saving the ring
A dynamic antireligious campaign was just beginning in Cuba. Churches, convents and Catholic schools were raided, occupied and desecrated. Government agents defiled liturgical ornaments and even stole them. The Martín Villaverde sisters feared for the safety of their brother’s episcopal ring.
By then, the Vicar General of Matanzas, Monsignor Manuel Trabadelo, had joined the clerical exodus of Cuban pastors who had lost their parishes, their fertile evangelical work and the human warmth of their parishioners. He had been exiled to the Diocese of Miami, where Bishop Coleman F. Carroll appointed him as a Parochial Vicar at St. Patrick Church on Miami Beach.
In the decade of the 1960s, the sisters sent the ring to Monsignor Trabadelo’s for his indefinite protection. But in 1979, Román was appointed by Pope John Paul II as an auxiliary Bishop in the Archdiocese of Miami, becoming the first Cuban bishop in the U.S. Catholic Church.
Monsignor Trabadelo concluded that the natural heir of the ring should be the disciple of its former owner. As a seminarian, Román received the love of his bishop for his fraternal charity and service to the poor. Both rose through the ranks of Church hierarchy while maintaining simplicity, poverty and pastoral initiatives preaching the social gospel – the same model of priesthood that Pope Francis proposes now for the entire Church.
Because of his humbleness and respect for the man who gave him religious formation, Bishop Román chose not to wear the relic. How could he, when he considered Bishop Martín a “wise saint”? Aside from that, a jewel did not reflect his persona. His ring is made of silver, not gold; it is simple, austere and easy to wear. Its only element, a representation of Virgin Mary rooted in the Cuban soul, is also a symbol of the Cuban national identity.
The inheritance overflows with symbolism. Román’s behavior as a bishop faithfully followed the lines of evangelization, a rejection of material values and the patriotism of the pre-revolutionary Cuban Church. Like those Cuban bishops who kept struggling against the Castro’s atheistic philosophy, Bishop Román never entertained the idea of visiting a communist Cuba – not even on the occasion of the pastoral visits of two Popes.
With his eyes fixed on the sun of his beloved Diocese of Matanzas, from which he was separated at gun point, he left with the ring a handwritten note which reads: “This ring belonged to Monsignor Alberto Martín Villaverde. The day I die, it should be sent to the Diocese of Matanzas.” In his heart, it was the appropriate place to enshrine the holy relic.
Today, rejoined in heaven, the two bishops maintain a constant vigil over the destiny of their common homeland.
Daniel Shoer Roth, El Nuevo Herald’s Metro columnist, is writing the biography of Bishop Román.