Pope Francis will visit three Cuban cities and the National Sanctuary of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, the shrine of Cuba’s patron saint, during a September visit to the island, the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba announced Monday.
The bishops said Francis would arrive in Cuba on Saturday, Sept. 19 and remain on the island until Sept. 22 when he leaves from Santiago in eastern Cuba for a trip to the United States.
Besides Santiago, the pope will visit Havana, Holguín, and the shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre (Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre). El Cobre is a small, copper-mining town about 12 miles outside Santiago. Veneration of Our Lady of Charity, known affectionately in Cuba as La Cachita, dates from 1612 when three salt collectors found a small wooden statue of the Virgin Mary in the Bay of Nipe after a storm. A plank attached to the statue, which is now in the shrine at El Cobre, read “I am the Virgin of Charity.”
The Archdiocese of Miami is planning a Sept. 18-22 Cuba pilgrimage that will coincide with Francis’ visit, said Mary Ross Agosta, spokeswoman for the archdiocese. Further details on the trip should be available in the next few days, she said, but the archdiocese pilgrims will remain in Havana the entire time and won’t follow the pope through Cuba.
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The announcement comes on the heels of a private meeting Sunday between Argentine-born Pope Francis and Cuban leader Raúl Castro in the Vatican.
“When the pope goes to Cuba in September, I promise to go to all his Masses and with satisfaction,” Castro said at a news conference following his meeting with the pope.
Castro was so impressed by the pontiff that he said, “If the pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the church and I am not joking.”
Francis’ trip to Cuba will be the third papal visit to the island in 17 years. Pope Benedict went in 2012, and Pope John Paul II visited for five days in 1998.
After departing from Santiago, the pope will head to Washington, D.C., where he will meet with President Barack Obama on Sept. 23 and address Congress. During his U.S. trip, the pope is also scheduled to speak before the United Nations and visit Philadelphia.
As Castro left the Vatican, he told reporters that he once again thanked the pope for his role in the United States-Cuba reconciliation that was announced on Dec. 17. The pope offered the Vatican as one of the locations for secret talks that led to a diplomatic breakthrough between the two countries, and Francis gave personal letters to both Obama and Castro urging them to find a way forward.
The United States and Cuba are in the process of negotiating a date for resuming diplomatic relations and reopening their respective embassies.