Houston deacon presents healthy benefits of prayer in Cuba

February 21, 2016

CUBA — On Dec. 9, 2015 a historic event took place in Cuba when religion was presented to the University of Havana, via the School of Medical Science, for the first time in over 50 years since the revolution. It was also historic because the Archdiocese of Havana and the University of Havana jointly sponsored the event with Jaime Cardinal Ortega of Havana present at the opening session.

Deacon Robert Hesse of St. Michael Catholic Church was invited by Archdiocese of Havana by Deacon Manuel Hernandez to present faith and science to permanent deacons on Jan. 7, 2015. Unexpectedly on Dec. 27, 2014 the U.S.-Cuba détente was announced, which was brokered by the Vatican under Pope Francis’ leadership. Some individuals and institutions did not agree with the détente.

At that presentation Deacon Hesse was introduced to Jaime Cardinal Ortega’s emissary, Esperanza Puron Ph.D., the only person to teach at both the nontheistic lay University of Havana and the Catholic Seminary in Havana. She asked, with the Cardinal’s blessing, that the same religious presentation be given to the University of Havana in July 2015. Deacon Hesse invited professors from the University of St. Thomas and Baylor College of Medicine (BCM). The presentations included neurotheology and functional magnetic imaging (fMRI) research on the neurological effects of prayer on the brains of depressed patients. Though the initiative to the University of Havana failed, the presentations were still held at the Catholic seminary in Havana.

Calixto Machado, M.D., Ph.D. of the Institute of Neurology and Neurosurgery, of the University of Havana’s School of Medical Science was present. He was interested in the neurotheology and neuroscience of prayer since he was himself an internationally respected neuroscientist specializing in brain death and near-death. As president of the International Symposium on Brain Death & Disorders of Consciousness, he invited Deacon Hesse to organize a one-day session on spirituality and health at his planned VII symposium on Dec. 8 to 11, 2015 at the TRYP Habana Libre Hotel. Ironically this was the former Hilton Hotel site of Fidel Castro’s office during the revolution. Additionally it was just a few weeks after Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba when he said, “Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people.”

Within only 3 months the local Contemplative Network collected private donations to reduce the registration costs for the target audience of well-trained physicians. World-renowned speakers were invited who were versed in religion and science, with emphasis on medical neuroscience to fit the conference theme, and who were willing to participate pro bono.

Two world-renowned keynote-prerecorded speakers lovingly offered their time: Harold Koenig, M.D., Duke University Medical Center, is one of the world’s experts on medicine and religion and editor of “The Handbook of Religion and Health,” and Ken Pargament, Ph.D., Bowling Green State University and adjunct professor The Menninger Department of Psychiatry, is one of the world’s experts on psychotherapy and spirituality and Editor-In-Chief of the 2013 two-volume “APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion and Spirituality.” In addition the professors from the July 2015 presentations returned, plus a professor from the Pontifical University, Regina Apostolorum.

The Spirituality and Health Session covered the large and growing body of scientific research that shows that belief in a higher power, religion and spirituality all promote healing. It started with general medical research. For example, regular church attendance increases longevity by as much as 7 years, lowers blood pressure, strengthens the immune system, etc. Also presented was the fMRI research on the benefits of prayer given in the July presentation. It concluded with teaching centering prayer, a form of contemplative prayer, to both believers and atheists. Some participants immediately testified to its potential neuroscientific benefits.

Follow-up collaborative Cuban-US research is currently being discussed on the effects of prayer on the brain and on the similarity of deep contemplative experiences to near-death experiences. A panel of some of the professors at this historic Cuban symposium, including Machado, will report on this historic event on Sunday, March 6, at 8 to 9:15 a.m. at the Conference on Medicine and Religion in Houston. This conference is sponsored by Harvard University, University of Chicago, Institute for Spirituality and Health, et.al. To register, visit www.medicineandreligion.com.