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For a day, Havana's cathedral belonged to a Miami prelate

HAVANA — On the second day of Pope Benedict XVI's journey across Cuba, Havana's Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception, whose baroque structure was built by Jesuit priests more than 300 years ago, belonged to the archbishop of Miami.

Standing before a crowd made up primarily of Cuban American pilgrims but that included a smattering of local Cubans, Archbishop Thomas Wenski celebrated a special Mass in fluent Spanish in an ornate building whose asymmetrical façade is considered unique in the world.

Speaking from the altar, Wenski recalled the words of John Paul II during the first papal visit to Cuba in 1998 and called on Cubans to be the “protagonists of their own future.”

Then he recalled Benedict's words as he began his first visit to Latin America: "As the pope observed on his flight to Mexico, Marxism is a spent ideology."

“We pray that the Cuban people are inspired by the word of God,” Wenski added. “And that these people build a future of peace.”

At the end, the audience broke into a standing ovation that lasted at least two minutes. Some in the crowd wiped away tears.

It was an emotional climax to an emotional day for the pilgrims, whose numbers grew to approximately 800 on Tuesday as three more planes arrived from Miami, carrying more pilgrims to join the 300 who'd arrived Monday in Santiago, the pope's first stop.

For many, it was their first trip to Cuba or, at least, their first trip home since Fidel Castro took power in 1959.

Wenski, who is leading the pilgrimage, said before the Mass that the experience has been a healing one for most of the Cuban Americans on the trip. He said he could see the difference in their tears and the stories of reconciliation that they’ve told him.

It’s been a whirlwind trip for the group, most of whom have had little time to sleep.

The pilgrims arrived Monday morning on two planes and immediately traveled to the mining town of El Cobre to visit the shrine of Our Lady of Charity, Cuba's patron saint, whose 400th anniversary is being marked this year. Some broke into tears seeing the holy sculpture.

The pilgrims then traveled into Santiago along streets lined with cheering crowds who waved at their buses as they waited for the arrival of the pope, who was close behind. After Monday evening's Mass, the pilgrims got on another plane to Havana, checking into their hotel rooms at 2 a.m.

Teri Travis, from St. Augustine, Fla., said the pilgrims are tired but driven by faith and a rare opportunity to join the pilgrimage.

“I’m a quarter Cuban,” said Travis, 47. “My family packed up and moved in 1959. I’ve heard stories all my life. I jumped at the opportunity to come.”

For those, like Andres Hernandez, it’s been more challenging. The 70-year-old sales specialist from Lakeland, Fla., hasn’t been to Cuba since he left in 1960 to study engineering in the United States.

Walking along the same cobblestone streets he used to walk with his family to the cathedral for Mass, Hernandez said he’s glad he returned to see his homeland and to support the church and the Cuban people. But he says he doesn’t think he’ll be back.

“Cuba has changed so much since when I was here,” he said in Spanish.

All of his family has moved to the United States or Spain, he said. He has no loved ones to visit. To return, he said he would have to come as a tourist and that would mean giving money to the government, which he says he can’t support.

“They took everything my family owned,” he said.

Wenski wore his archbishop's miter for the Mass in the historic cathedral. The marble and limestone cathedral on the cobblestone square was built in 1704. One of its side altars is said to have once contained the remains of Christopher Columbus.

Before the Mass, Wenski said the pilgrimage was not about politics, but prayer and reconciliation. He acknowledged the work of the church to continue to create space for “differences of opinion so that people can disagree about things, but at the same time those disagreements do not result in the divisions that have been characterized Cuba in the past several decades.”

Travis’s mother, Mary Travis, said she's thrilled about her plans to attend Pope Benedict's planned Mass on Wednesday in Havana's vast Revolution Square. But she also is conflicted about the trip in a society where she feels people are still unable to speak freely.

She said she’d love the opportunity to sit with members of the Cuban community to hear their thoughts about the government. But she says on this trip she doesn't have the time to build the relationships needed for that kind of trust.

Both she and her daughter said they longed for a more open future for Cuba.

“I can’t wait for the wall to come tumbling down,” Teri Travis said. MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

Catholic Church's role in Cuba has grown since last papal visit

Pope Benedict will find a different Castro in charge in Cuba

As Benedict visits Cuba, critics knock Church for timid stance

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