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.

Video: Cuba’s patroness and the basilica that houses her

Learn about Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, Cuba’s patroness, and the basilica that houses her. Pope Benedict is honoring her tonight with an outdoor Mass in Santiago de Cuba, and tomorrow morning he will visit the shrine itself, about 30 miles away.

Previewing the papal trip to Cuba

Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Cuba this afternoon. Take a minute to check out some of our preview material:

(CNS/Emily Thompson)

A schoolgirl poses for a photo at a park in Santiago, Cuba. (CNS/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

The stories above were from a reporting trip to Cuba last month by CNS visual media manager Nancy Wiechec and CNS staff reporter Patricia Zapor, who also spoke about their trip to Cuba on the Religion & Ethics Newsweekly program this past weekend. Not to be missed is this photo gallery of some of the colorful images they brought back. (They also wrote a blog on the things the pope will and won’t see while in Cuba.)

In addition, CNS Rome senior correspondent Cindy Wooden, who has been reporting from  Havana this weekend while awaiting the pope’s arrival, wrote this Vatican Letter last week, The cry of the poor: Pope likely to repeat criticism of Cuba embargo, giving a Vatican perspective on the Cuba visit.

Also of note is this blog item by the chairman of Catholic Relief Services, Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas, on what this trip means to him.

CNS Rome bureau chief Francis X. Rocca, traveling on the papal plane to both Mexico and Cuba, also previewed the Cuba visit in this video report from Rome, focusing particularly on communism’s effect on the church since the rise of Fidel Castro more than 50 years ago.

The papal trip schedule, and more

(CNS/Emily Thompson)

The plane carrying Pope Benedict XVI and his entourage lands in Mexico in just a few hours to begin what could be his most significant trip to the Americas. Scroll down in this story for the minute-by-minute official schedule for both Mexico and Cuba.

Our new Rome bureau chief, Francis X. Rocca, who is on the papal plane with CNS Rome-based photographer Paul Haring, previewed the trip in this story, noting that the visits to each country will be relatively brief but also pointing out that the issues the pope will address affect an entire continent. If a video preview of the trip to Mexico is more to your liking, you can watch Rocca analyze expectations for the trip here.

What kind of Catholicism will the pope find this weekend in Mexico? CNS freelance correspondent David Agren produced these two stories exploring the state of the church in Mexico:

Teenage pilgrims show their religious pendants after Mass. (CNS/David Maung)

We also have a photo gallery of excellent images of the Mexican church the pope will see by freelance photographer David Maung

Video: Themes of the papal trip to Mexico

Pope Benedict XVI flies to Mexico tomorrow morning for an important trip that will also include stops in Cuba. Watch as CNS Rome bureau chief Francis X. Rocca explores some of the themes of this weekend’s visit and some of the history of church-state relations in Mexico.

Things the pope will and won’t see in Cuba when he visits

The effects of Communist rule and the longstanding U.S. trade embargo make for an interesting societal landscape in Cuba — one that’s unfamiliar to many visitors. CNS correspondent Patricia Zapor and I, back from a recent visit to the island, compiled this list of things the pope will and won’t see when he is there.

Won’t See:

The back bumper of a vintage Buick Eight Special in Old Havana. (CNS/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

  • Mobile phones
  • New churches
  • American cars (post 1950s)
  • Commercial advertising
  • Good beer selection
  • The iPad
  • Fast-food joints
  • Church schools
  • Beef
  • Wealthy homes

Will See:

  • Phone booths
  • Old churches
  • Classic cars
  • Cigars
  • Rum
  • Free live music
  • Bicycle taxis
  • Baseball fans
  • Pork and chicken
  • Friendly people

Vatican panel’s document on role of theologians, bishops available here

In the new issue of Origins, the CNS documentary service, the International Theological Commission, an advisory body to the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, says theologians and bishops have distinct but complementary roles in teaching the Catholic faith (click here for the CNS story), but theologians ultimately must defer to the pope and bishops regarding the authentic interpretation of the faith. Titled “Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Criteria,” the 20,000-word text looks at developments in Catholic theology since Vatican Council II and offers criteria for recognizing theology that is authentically Catholic.

You can download this edition of Origins here (.pdf). It also includes the text of Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan’s March 2 letter to U.S. bishops saying the White House has failed to consider the U.S. bishops’ concerns on the contraceptive mandate for health insurance plans.

To purchase copies of the regular print version of this edition of Origins (Vol. 41, No. 40), call (202) 541-3290.

Vatican lawyer on plaintiffs’ decision to abandon 2010 Murphy sex abuse lawsuit

UPDATESex abuse lawsuit against Vatican withdrawn

ROME — Jeffrey S. Lena, an American attorney for the Holy See, announced today that the plaintiffs in a 2010 federal lawsuit against the Vatican regarding Father Lawrence Murphy, who sexually abused students at a Milwaukee Catholic school for the deaf, have notified the court that they have decided to abandon the suit. Below is Lena’s statement:

Statement of Jeffrey S. Lena Regarding John Doe 16 v. Holy See, et al.

(Case No. 2:10-cv-00346 RTR, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Wisconsin)

On February 10, 2012, Jeffrey R. Anderson, Esq. of the law office of Jeff Anderson and Associates, working together with columnist Marci Hamilton, Esq., filed a voluntary notice of dismissal in the case of John Doe 16 v. Holy See.

The Notice of Voluntary Dismissal — which was filed by the Plaintiff’s lawyers to avoid their duty to submit to the Court a court-ordered response to the Holy See’s Motion to Dismiss — requested that the “Court take notice of this dismissal and remove this matter from its docket.”

With these ignominious words, the John Doe 16 case died silently on a Friday afternoon in what attorney Jeff Anderson has himself called “the crucible of the courtroom.”

Things were different at the beginning of this case. On April 22, 2010, counsel for Plaintiff orchestrated a press event replete with props and other trappings designed to induce a media feeding frenzy. During the frenzy, Plaintiff’s counsel dramatically announced that they held information demonstrating a “world-wide conspiracy” related to sexual abuse that was directed by the Holy See. That outworn and discredited claim was in fact the centerpiece of a planned sequence of media events that took a very serious matter — the sexual abuse of a child — and turned it into a tool to assert fallacious allegations of Holy See responsibility and liability for John Doe 16’s abuse. Continue reading

Second statement by bishops on HHS mandate calls for its total rescission

In a new statement tonight on President Obama’s noontime announcement of a new plan for mandatory contraceptive coverage in health insurance plans, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the “only complete solution” to the religious liberty implications of the insurance mandate “is for HHS to rescind the mandate of these objectionable services.”

Titled “Bishops Renew Call To Legislative Action On Religious Liberty,” the 700-word statement expanded on an earlier statement the same day saying the Obama announcement might be “a first step in the right direction” but that the conference still had concerns and reserved “judgment on the details until we have them.”

Tonight’s statement is a much more detailed analysis of the new plan. It notes that what it calls “the lack of clear protection” for religious employers and insurers “is unacceptable and must be corrected.” It also pledged to continue “efforts to correct this problem through the other two branches of government.”

Here is the full text of tonight’s statement:

The Catholic bishops have long supported access to life-affirming healthcare for all, and the conscience rights of everyone involved in the complex process of providing that healthcare. That is why we raised two serious objections to the “preventive services” regulation issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in August 2011.

First, we objected to the rule forcing private health plans — nationwide, by the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen—to cover sterilization and contraception, including drugs that may cause abortion. All the other mandated “preventive services” prevent disease, and pregnancy is not a disease. Moreover, forcing plans to cover abortifacients violates existing federal conscience laws. Therefore, we called for the rescission of the mandate altogether.

Second, we explained that the mandate would impose a burden of unprecedented reach and severity on the consciences of those who consider such “services” immoral: insurers forced to write policies including this coverage; employers and schools forced to sponsor and subsidize the coverage; and individual employees and students forced to pay premiums for the coverage. We therefore urged HHS, if it insisted on keeping the mandate, to provide a conscience exemption for all of these stakeholders—not just the extremely small subset of “religious employers” that HHS proposed to exempt initially.

Today, the President has done two things.

First, he has decided to retain HHS’s nationwide mandate of insurance coverage of sterilization and contraception, including some abortifacients. This is both unsupported in the law and remains a grave moral concern. We cannot fail to reiterate this, even as so many would focus exclusively on the question of religious liberty. Continue reading

Bishops respond to Obama announcement on contraceptive mandate

UPDATE: Full news release.

SECOND UPDATESecond statement by bishops on HHS mandate calls for its total rescission

The following statement was just issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops:

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) sees initial opportunities in preserving the principle of religious freedom after President Obama’s announcement today. But the Conference continues to express concerns. “While there may be an openness to respond to some of our concerns, we reserve judgment on the details until we have them,” said Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

‘The past three weeks have witnessed a remarkable unity of Americans from all religions or none at all worried about the erosion of religious freedom and governmental intrusion into issues of faith and morals,” he said.

‘Today’s decision to revise how individuals obtain services that are morally objectionable to religious entities and people of faith is a first step in the right direction,” Cardinal-designate Dolan said. “We hope to work with the Administration to guarantee that Americans’ consciences and our religious freedom are not harmed by these regulations.”

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