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Religion in Cuba

Catholicism in Cuba

Hemingway makes several references to Catholicism in The Old Man and the Sea that show Santiago’s familiarity with the religion and represents Catholicism’s presence in Cuba at the time Hemingway wrote the novel. These include Santiago’s mentions of San Pedro, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Virgin of Cobre, sin, and the Catholic prayers Our Father and Hail Mary. Santiago relies on religion during moments of tribulation, like when he seeks to catch a large fish: “‘I am not religious,’ he said. ‘But I will say ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys that I should catch this fish, and I promise to make a pilgrimage to the Virgin of Cobre if I catch him. That is a promise’” (Hemingway 64-65). Santiago admits he is not a practicing Catholic, but it seems like Catholicism has been so ingrained into his life (and perhaps the lives of those around him) that he would say devotionals in a desperate attempt to catch this fish.

Santiago’s knowledge of the Catholic faith likely represents the popularity of the religion in Cuba. The Spanish brought Catholicism to Cuba upon colonizing the land in 1492, and they sought to “civilize its subjects” by either converting the natives (mostly the Taíno, a historic indigenous people of the Caribbean) or enslaving them; this resulted in the near extinction of Cuba’s native population and allowed Catholicism to thrive (Anreus; Holbrook). The rise of interest in Our Lady of Charity del Cobre at the beginning of the seventeenth century helped solidify the religion’s popularity in Cuba (Montgomery). Eventually, during Cuba’s democratic years (1940-1952), some members of the Auténtico political party welcomed a populist Catholicism, resulting in the creation of lay Catholic organizations: Acción Católica, Agrupados Católicos, and Juventud Obrera Católica (Anreus). With the establishment of these lay organizations and the popularity of Our Lady of Charity del Cobre, Catholicism became prominent in Cuba even without government support. Hemingway shows how deep-seated Catholicism is in Cuban culture by having his main character—an old, non-religious fisherman that seems largely detached from the rest of the world—know some of the core rituals of the religion.

Cathedral located in Old Havana

Sacred Heat of Jesus

On the walls of Santiago’s home is a colorized image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In Catholicism, the Sacred Heart is an object of devotion that represents the spiritual and physical heart of Jesus (Encyclopedia Britannica). It is one of the most popular images in Catholicism, and images of the object often depict a wounded heart emitting light while surrounded by a crown of thorns (Encyclopedia Britannica; “The Most Famous Image of the Sacred Heart”). The presence of this devotion image in Santiago’s home alludes to the impact of Catholicism in Cuba, as many Cubans identify with the religion as a result of Spanish colonization (Holbrook 265). 

This is possibly the picture Santiago had of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It was painted by Pompeo Batoni in 1760, was placed in the Church of the Gesù in Rome, and has become the official image for this religious devotion. Courtesy of Missionaries of Divine Revelation.

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