Félix Varela is one of the most important personalities in the history of Cuba, but also of Spain and the United States. The history of these three countries in the 19th century cannot be understood without him.
His rich personality has many facets: priest, philosopher, promoter of the independence of Cuba, and director of a revolutionary newspaper.
In him are combined the philosophy, ethics, pedagogy, and politics which, as a whole, drove Cuba’s push for national independence. All these factors are united in this priest, Father Varela, who died with a reputation of sanctity.
The possible miracle
Now the Church has gone a step further: Studying his life and his heroic virtues as part of his cause of holiness, it has discovered that there may already have been a miraculous healing through the intercession of this man who is considered the Cuban “father of the homeland.”
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, postulator of the cause for the canonization of Father Varela, told Aleteia that a possible miracle is indeed under study. “I believe that the process of beatification of Felix Varela is very much at the end of a long process,” he confirmed.
It’s about “the healing of a child,” he says, “and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints has to approve it.”
“It might be a valid miracle”
“There are two commissions, one medical and one theological,” Archbishop Paglia explains. “What I can say, studying and talking to some people, is that I think this miracle might be a valid miracle. If it’s approved, we’ll be able to say that the process has been concluded.”
If the Congregation for the Causes of Saints approves this healing, which has the appearance of being miraculous, Father Varela’s beatification will be very close. “This means that in the first months of next year (2023) the Congregation will be able to decide after a serious, very serious examination of this cause, and present the results to the Pope.”
If the decision is positive, the Pope is expected to approve the beatification.
The miracle through Father Varela’s intercession
A child had a congenital malformation. (The family) prayed and prayed to Varela. A woman put an image of Father Varela near the child. Afterwards, the child’s condition miraculously improved.
This miracle has to be confirmed for us by the group of doctors. And then, to decide that it’s a sign from heaven, we have to confirm the relationship between the improved health and the prayer to Varela by the child’s own relatives. If these two judgments are both positive, it’s a miracle.
A great figure in history
The postulator stresses that the figure of Father Varela has great historical significance, especially in Cuba, the United States, and Spain:
Varela is a singular man. He was of the 19th century but he can also be seen as a man of today. He was admired. He was a fugitive from Cuba. In Spain he defended the freedom and independence of his country (Cuba), and for that he was condemned to death. He was forced to leave the country and went to New York.
He was the founder, we could say, of the Archdiocese of New York. He was to be appointed as the first bishop of the city, but the King of Spain spoke with the Vatican and this appointment was canceled.
Paglia also highlights his exemplary life as a priest. “He was a man of great wisdom,” Paglia says.
In New York, “He founded a parish that was multinational, not just for Cubans or Italians, but for everyone. It was the only international parish in New York, where he promoted, for example, the songs of all and not of only one region. This is incredibly modern.”
A bridge between North America, Cuba, and Latin America.
That is why “Varela can be, I believe, a bridge between North America and Cuba and Latin America. And today we need this bridge, because if we continue to be divided, the world will be worse.”
Where will the beatification take place?
That is why “the dream I have is that the first step of Varela’s beatification will take place in Havana and then also in New York. In this sense, a man like him, a priest, can be a bridge of unity for the future of the Americas and the world.”
Life of Félix Varela
Félix Varela was born in Havana (Cuba) on November 20, 1788. His father was Spanish, the captain of a military regiment in Havana, which was then a Spanish colony. His mother, Josefa Morales, was from Santiago de Cuba.
Felix was the third and last son of the couple, preceded by his sisters María de Jesus and Cristina. He was baptized a week after birth by the chaplain of the regiment, the Dominican priest Fr. Miguel Hernandez.
However, when he was 3 years old, his mother died and the three children were left in the care of their grandmother and aunts, since their father was in the active military and had to travel continuously. His grandfather was also in the military: When he was assigned that same year to St. Augustine, in the Florida peninsula (which was then still a Spanish colony), he took Felix with him.
This made it possible for the little boy to attend primary school with Fr. O’Reilly, who taught him Latin, grammar, and the violin, which was not common at that time.
Entry into the seminary
When he began his secondary studies, Felix returned to Havana. His father had died and the family was worried that the boy would follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather by becoming a soldier. However, the young man said that he wanted to enter the seminary and become a priest. Félix Varela was 14 years old.
Thus, he enrolled in the San Carlos and San Ambrosio Royal and Conciliar Seminary of Havana. The biography of Varela published by the Royal Academy of History (of Spain, RAH for short) states that he stood out “for his studies and sincere vocation.”
He had great talent. He studied at the University of Havana, where he obtained academic degrees, and at the age of 19, as a result of his intelligence and dedication, “took the chairs of his own professors,” specifically those of Latin and Rhetoric in the seminary, after competing for the posts in 1811.
At the age of 23 he was ordained a priest at the cathedral of Havana by Bishop Diaz de Espada (1756-1832). Because of his young age, he had to ask the Pope for a dispensation. He celebrated his first mass at the convent of Santa Teresa.
In 1812 he was appointed professor of Philosophy, Physics and Ethics at the seminary. There he would prepare what was to be the first physics and chemistry laboratory in the country.
A great teacher: “He taught us to think”
His system of learning was innovative: He encouraged students to reflect, something that contrasted with the pedagogy of that time, which was centered on memorization. That’s why “Cubans refer to Varela as ‘the one who taught us to think,'” the RAH biography stresses.
During those years he also founded the first Philharmonic Society of Havana, was part of and worked for the Economic Society of Friends of the Country, and wrote plays and philosophy.
In 1817 he joined the Patriotic Society of Havana with his speech “The influence of ideology on the functioning of society.” The following year he published “Lessons in Philosophy”; five editions were eventually published, some of them in New York and Philadelphia.
Beginnings in political life
In 1820, Colonel Rafael del Riego led a revolt in Spain, bringing about three years of liberal rule in contrast to Ferdinand VII’s previous absolutism. Varela assumed the chair of Political Economy and left the chair of Philosophy, which he had held for nine years. Soon after, he won the chair of Constitutional Law by competitive examination. He proposed it as a platform for the teaching and diffusion of constitutionalism in Cuba, coinciding with the three years known as the Liberal Triennium in Spain (which ended in Spain with the return of absolutism and the execution of Riego).
Varela held this position very briefly because in 1821 he would be elected deputy to the Spanish Courts, and his disciple José Antonio Saco replaced him.
“First champion of colonial autonomy”
In Spain his presence began to be noticed. He presented a project of “Instruction for the economic-political government of the overseas provinces.” He and the other Cuban deputies asked – with moderation – for autonomy, although limited, within the constitutional framework.
In accordance with the law, he asked in the Congress of Deputies for the creation of a Provincial Deputation for Cuba, which didn’t attack Spain’s rights of sovereignty over the island, but would allow Cuba itself to have greater power of self-government in matters of the island itself. “For this reason,” notes the biography of the Royal Academy of History, “he is considered by some as the first champion of Cuba’s colonial autonomy.”
Calls for the abolition of slavery
Varela, following his deep convictions, defended the ethics of the common good and also presented a project for the abolition of slavery and proposed the recognition of the independence of the American nations.
In 1823 Varela’s career suffered a major setback. He had voted in Seville along with Riego in favor of declaring King Ferdinand VII unfit to rule, and for this he was punished: He was outlawed and had to take refuge in the United States.
A priest who welcomed everyone
He went to live in New York, where he worked hard as a priest. His parish was attended by people from a wide variety of backgrounds, races and social classes, which was an act of daring.
He didn’t completely abandon politics: He published the newspaper El Habanero (in Philadelphia and New York, 1824-1825) and in its pages he already wrote openly in favor of Cuban independence. Thus, the Royal Academy of History considers him “the first ideological separatist” of Cuba.
From 1825 onwards, his work was focused on priestly ministry with some exceptions, such as the translation of Jefferson’s “Manual of Parliamentary Practice” and Davy’s “Elements of Chemistry Applied to Agriculture.”
From 1835 to 1838 he published “Letters to Elpidius,” on impiety, superstition and fanaticism.
In 1839 he was elected effective vicar of New York. His prestige won him authority and appreciation among the Catholic community of the United States, to the point that he was considered as a candidate for the bishopric. At this point, the Government of Spain intervened to prevent him from becoming a bishop.
A Catholic newspaper in English
For Varela, this was not an obstacle to continuing his pastoral work. In fact, he made a great effort in his work of apologetics and published a Catholic newspaper in English to defend the faith.
Death and fame of sanctity
His health grew weaker and weaker. He was exhausted because of his work and, finding himself ill, he decided to retire to St. Augustine, Florida (already independent from Spain since 1821), seeking a milder climate. He died there on February 18, 1853.
Félix Varela’s fame of sanctity had already spread throughout the countries that knew him. Upon hearing the news of his death, one of his disciples in Cuba traveled to Florida to collect his ashes and take them with him. However, the Irish and other Catholics in the area didn’t allow it: They didn’t want to let “even a single hair” of that priest, who had had such an impact on them, be taken away from them.
His remains rest today in the Aula Magna of the University of Havana, and he’s considered “father of the homeland” in Cuba.
The Order of Felix Varela
In 1981, the government of the Republic of Cuba created the Order of Félix Varela, the highest distinction granted to Cubans and foreigners, as well as to cultural collectives, in recognition of extraordinary contributions made in favor of culture.
On March 14, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI signed the decree, through the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, declaring the Servant of God Felix Varela as Venerable, a step prior to being proclaimed blessed and later a saint.
In his homily, Benedict XVI defined Father Félix Varela as a shining example of how a man of faith can contribute to the construction of a more just society.