The visit that gave Cubans a Good Friday holiday

Editor’s Note: Today, Good Friday, is a holiday in Cuba, after the government granted a request from Pope Benedict XVI.

Hundreds of Americans traveled to Cuba for the pope’s March 26-28 visit. Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., traveled with pilgrims from Florida. Following is the first of three blogs he wrote for Catholic News Service.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Miami airport was abuzz with excitement at 5:30 a.m. Travelers mixed with reporters carrying cameras and microphones. More than 300 pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Miami, their priests and Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski were headed for Santiago de Cuba on two chartered 737s to join in the visit of the “Peregrino de la Caridad” (the pilgrim of Our Lady of Charity, the patroness of Cuba), Pope Benedict XVI. A delegation from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was joining them.

Archbishop Wenski went from speaking to reporters in Spanish to Creole and then to English. He greeted members of the Knights of Malta, business leaders and people of Cuban descent who had not been back to their homeland since they were babies, as well as elderly Cubans who were thrilled to be returning to a land that was still home and which they love, despite having left decades earlier.

The pilot of our Miami Air flight explained that the company flies charters all over the world, including troop deployments. He was excited to be making this trip, he said, first because it was bringing us to see the Holy Father, and second, because it was his last flight now that he was turning 65 and had to retire. We told him that we hoped it would not be our last flight.

U.S. Pilgrims from Florida and elsewhere pray at the Shrine of Our Lady of El Cobra before Pope Benedict arrived in Cuba. (CNS photo/Tom Tracy)

We arrived at Santiago de Cuba and stepped into a land that has had a blessed and difficult history. The day glowed with sunshine as we headed out on eight buses to visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre. The lush, green countryside is a stark contrast from Arizona.

The sanctuary at El Cobre had been spruced up for the visit. We approached along a street lined with banners welcoming Pope Benedict. Inside the image of the Virgin had been brought down to the sanctuary of the church from above the altar, where it is usually venerated. Flashes of light surrounded the image as people took photos. I knelt at the railing to offer a prayer for the people of Cuba, that they might realize their dreams and build a country of which they could all be proud.

Along the side aisles of the church were museum-style cases containing baseballs, one of Cuba’s favorite sports, and sports jackets and memorabilia from talented Cubans who have succeeded in realizing a bright future. One case contained prayers and photographs of the sick and loved ones lost. Church is a place to bring your struggles, your successes, your anxieties and fears to place them in Mary’s hands as did the couple in Cana, trusting that she would bring them to her son.

Out in the street, vendors were selling images of La Virgen, proud of their work and hopeful that someone would buy something. We wandered into the neighborhood that surrounds the church. As is often the case, the poor live in hovels around the church, as if holding onto the faith as that which brings them hope. We stopped at a couple of houses and were greeted with marvelous smiles, especially from the little ones who enjoyed seeing strangers visit. The street was in serious disrepair but it did not prevent one boy from riding his bike up and around deep potholes and minor obstructions, trying to get home. The neighborhood seemed excited about the pope coming to their community. Many were too young to remember Blessed John Paul II’s visit in 1998.

The group went to lunch at a restaurant right along the shimmering Caribbean. Rice and black beans are a Cuban staple, and the meal was delicious. Toward the end of lunch, someone looked up and cried, “Il Papa!” and people ran to the edge of the porch to see the Alitalia plane flying overhead. You could almost see the Holy Father waving to us as people waved enthusiastically from the ground. Later, many of the group watched on a grainy television in the bar of the hotel as the pope descended the stairs of the plane and was greeted by President Raul Castro.

We boarded our tourist buses to make the journey back to the site of the outdoor Mass. From a long way out, people holding Cuban and Vatican flags lined the streets, waving as we passed, cheering and filled with expectations. All the streets along the route were closed to traffic but were jammed with pedestrians. Castro had called for a holiday on the day the pope visited Santiago and another on the day of his Mass in Havana.

As we left our bus, we were swept up in a huge crowd that flowed peacefully down the streets. It was like a river of people curving their way downhill, a wave of people of all ages who had walked many miles to get to the celebration site. Some of the people from Florida broke down in tears as they saw throngs of their sisters and brothers, flocking to see the Holy Father in a country whose constitution only abolished atheism as the state creed in 1992, and a country from which they had to flee to practice their faith and to find their liberty.

Pilgrims from Florida joined the crowd before the papal Mass in Antonio Maceo Revolution Square in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba,. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The bishops vested in an area very near to the altar site. We found our places to the side of the main altar right in the sun. One could look out from the high altar and see people filling the whole square as clouds mercifully began to block the sun. The crowd was singing and chanting, enjoying one another’s company as they waited for the pope to arrive. Castro and other government leaders were sitting in the first row, chatting with one another as they joined the waiting crowd.

During a lull in the activities, when things were very quiet, a man from the crowd, yelling at the top of his voice, “Down with communism! Down with the dictator!” Immediately security rushed toward him and dragged him off. Some of the pilgrims later said he was beaten mercilessly.

A van carrying the statue of La Virgen de la Caridad entered the square, traveling around the field as people struggled to catch a glimpse. Excitement built until the Holy Father’s popemobile was seen coming down the road. People yelled and ran from one end of the square to the other to catch a glimpse.

The Holy Father appeared to have aged significantly from the last time I saw him almost two years ago. He appeared tired but seemed to push himself to be present to the people, to smile, and to reach out to them. The crowd was obviously pleased as they reached back.

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