People gather in Old Havana to see the statue of Cuba’s patron saint the Virgin of Charity of el Cobre, during an outdoor Mass marking the end of its pilgrimage Dec. 30. Reuters photo

When Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Santiago de Cuba on March 26 for a three-day pastoral visit, he will join Cubans as a “Pilgrim of Charity” in their jubilee year honoring the 400th anniversary of the appearance of Cuba’s patron, La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre (Our Lady of Charity of el Cobre) named after the mining town where the sanctuary is located. 

La Virgen Mambisa, as she is affectionately called by Cubans, is a national symbol of God’s presence and love, literally caridad or charity, a theme close to Pope Benedict’s heart. 

A replica of the statue of la Caridad recently completed a 16-month pilgrimage throughout the island that brought together 5 million Cubans in local processions — the first such religious public display since the 1950s.  

During a Mass in honor of la Caridad, Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino said, “in this hour of our national history so much in need of many changes, some things have begun to change.” The Marian pilgrimage “is demonstrating that Cuba is experiencing a springtime of faith. The times of ... fears and withdrawals have been left behind.” 

Higher visibility

It is this “springtime of faith” that the pope hopes to affirm and strengthen. But his visit will also authenticate a budding church-state relationship, and strengthen the Church’s role in Cuban society. 

“We are a Church with much more visibility,” said Msgr. José Félix Pérez, executive secretary of the Cuban Bishops’ Conference. “Our role in society is more acknowledged, more evident.” 

“Pope Benedict will find a vibrant, live Church,” Msgr. Pérez told Our Sunday Visitor in Spanish on a phone interview from Havana. “He will find a Church with a better conscience regarding its mission of evangelization, a Church that is moving toward the future, and its desire that all Cubans come to know Jesus.” 

Pope Benedict will be greeted by Raul Castro, 80, who in 2008 replaced his older brother, Fidel, 85, as president of communist-run Cuba. 

After 49 years of being persecuted and ignored under Fidel, the Catholic Church under Raul Castro has grown into a strong voice, recovering some of its former social influence. In dialogues with President Castro over the past few years, the Church brokered the release of more than 100 prisoners of conscience. It also lobbied to halt the harassment of citizens considered dissidents by the government. 

In a humanitarian gesture in anticipation of the papal visit, Castro released 2,900 prisoners at Christmas, including five political prisoners of conscience.  

Church-state progress

The beginning of the changes can be traced back to Blessed John Paul II’s challenge during his 1998 visit: “Let Cuba open itself to the world, and let the world open itself to Cuba.” 

Cuba never broke diplomatic ties with the Vatican, even when Fidel Castro declared it an atheist country after 1959. But Castro closed Catholic schools, sending priests and nuns into exile. Even entering a church was considered counterrevolutionary. Public displays of faith such as baptisms were deemed subversive, and Christmas celebrations were publicly forbidden. For decades, the Church and its priests were forced to work clandestinely. 

Immediately after Pope John Paul’s visit, Fidel Castro declared Cuba a “secular state,” a move that allowed Cubans greater religious expression. 

“The Church has gained considerable space for its pastoral work,” said Cuban-born Bishop Felipe Estévez of St. Augustine, Fla.“The government today has had to take new economic measures that are bound to benefit the people, almost as a necessity for survival in power.” 

Politically, negotiating with the Church offers the government a way to allow reforms without appearing to cave to pressure from outside sources, especially U.S. interests. 

That is not to say that the Cuban government has completely changed its conduct. Last month, Cuban authorities targeted hundreds of activists with beatings, police citations, arbitrary short-term violent arrests and mob attacks, leading both Amnesty International and the Organization Against Torture to issue urgent alerts. 

Particular targets of arrests and disappearances are the Damas de Blanco (or “The Ladies in White”), a group of women who have for years held silent marches after Sunday Mass to protest the imprisonment of their husbands and sons. On Feb. 26, two dozen were detained after Mass at St. Rita’s Church in Havana. 

Growing in faith

On his visit, Pope Benedict will notice “a people consumed by preoccupation of their daily bread, which every day becomes more difficult,” said Bishop José Siro González Bacallao, retired bishop of Pinar del Río. “But he will also recognize a Cuba that has been rejuvenated by the Virgin’s recent pilgrimage to every corner of the land, and a Church committed to the Gospel, in relation to the possibilities available to Cubans.” 

After half a century of communist rule, “one wishes there would be more new political initiatives. They are greatly needed,” added Bishop Estévez, who will lead a pilgrimage group from his diocese to Cuba. 

Calling this a “transforming time,” Bishop Estévez emphasized, “There is also the person of Benedict himself, a leader who is not afraid to say the truth. This is certainly a powerful opportunity for evangelizing a vast number of people.” 

“Our phrase has been ‘A Jesús por María,’ to Jesus through Mary,” said Msgr. Pérez. The spiritual renewal that “we are praying for will come through the Virgin, who unites the people. She is the one that will bring all Cubans to Christ.” 

“There is an outpouring of public religiosity and a lot of enthusiasm,” said Cuban-American Father Fernando Hería, pastor of St. Brendan Church, Miami, who left Cuba at age 11. “In 14 years, people have grown in faith. They are living more the model that Pope John Paul gave them: ‘Be Not Afraid.’” 

Father Hería is one of 310 pilgrims in the Archdiocese of Miami pilgrimage. Thousands of Cuban-Americans and other U.S. residents are expected to travel to Cuba through diocesan groups and independent charters. 

In Cuba, Church organizers say they can only guess at numbers, but they are preparing for hundreds of thousands pilgrims at both Masses. 

“Like the unforgettable visit of John Paul II, we hope that this pastoral and Marian visit will personify the Lord’s presence here, encouraging us to not give in to hopelessness, and to live fully our commitment to the Christian faith as we continue to walk a difficult pilgrimage,” said Bishop González Bacallao. 

María de Lourdes Ruiz Scaperlanda writes from Oklahoma.