Pope Francis delivered a powerful message of hope and perseverance to the Cuban faithful Monday on the feast day of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint.
Some saw a veiled political message in the pope’s call for Cuban Catholics to take to heart the lessons of the Virgin Mary and arise. “The victory is for those who arise again and again without being discouraged,” the pope wrote in a letter sent to Santiago Archbishop Dionisio García Ibáñez, who is also president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Cuba.
Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, known affectionately as La Cachita, has a special place in the hearts of Cubans both on the island and abroad.
Across Cuba, thousands of people took part in religious processions Monday and in Coral Gables, thousands attended a Mass celebrated by Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who was joined by local priests as well as visiting Cardinal Raymundo Damasceno Assis of Aparecida, Brazil.
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Veneration of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre dates from 1612 when three Cuban salt collectors found a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary bobbing in the Bay of Nipe after a violent storm. Neither the statue, which was attached to a plank that read “I am the Virgin of Charity,” nor her clothing were wet. The 15-inch statue is now ensconced in a church on a hill overlooking the copper mining town of El Cobre, about 12 miles from Santiago.
In the letter, Francis noted that when Mary was pregnant with Jesus, she still took care of her aging cousin Elizabeth and whoever else needed her.
“She did not think of herself; she overcame all setbacks and gave of herself to others,” Pope Francis said. “If we imitate Mary, we cannot just do nothing and merely complain, or perhaps pass the buck on to others for something that is our responsibility.”
Andy Gomez, a Cuba analyst who took part in a 2012 pilgrimage to Cuba when Pope Benedict XVI visited for the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the Our Lady of Charity statue, found the pope’s sentiments not only beautiful but “probably the most powerful message sent by a pope since the start of the revolution.
“It’s clearly a message that the pope cares very deeply about the Cuban people and is asking them to arise — not in the sense of a revolt — but to ask for freedom and change in a peaceful way,” he said.
Gomez said that should have been the message of Benedict when he visited Cuba.
“I have no doubt this letter will be read if not today, then next Sunday, in every Catholic Church in Cuba,” said Gomez. “I view it as asking for a rebirth of the nation.”
Msgr. Terence Hogan, dean of theology at St. Thomas University, said he viewed the letter as a powerful spiritual message of encouragement.
The pope, he said, was “looking toward a future when there is a unity of all those in Cuba and those in exile based on the principles of love and freedom. No matter what the political situation is in Cuba, the pope’s message encourages a spiritual understanding of the dignity of each person’s life.”
The message comes at a time when the Cuban people are searching for answers, the economy is sluggish and the repression of human rights activists and dissidents continues.
“The agony that the Cuban people suffer is well known,” Wenski said. “One doesn’t have to be Cuban to realize that. It’s enough to be human.”
In the letter, the pope highlights three words: Rejoice, arise and persevere. Wenski urged those at the Mass to put those words into practice.
“How beautiful it would be if all Cubans, especially the young, could say the same: ‘I am a man or woman of charity. I live to truly love, and thus could not be trapped in the toxic spiral of an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth,’ ” the pope said.
Francis also noted that Mary persevered by staying with her son when others had abandoned him and asked the faithful to emulate that perseverance.
“Lift up your heart and do not succumb in the face of adversities, persevere in the way of good: tirelessly helping those oppressed by sorrows and afflictions,” the pope wrote. “These are the important lessons taught to us by Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, useful both for today and tomorrow.”
This year, for the first time on the feast of the patroness of Cuba, a replica of the statue found four centuries ago sits in a quiet corner of the Vatican Gardens in front of an ivy-covered wall. The small stone statue was brought to the Vatican in 2008 and blessed by Benedict. Last month, it was enthroned in the garden.
“Its presence constitutes a moving reminder of the affection and vitality of the pilgrim Church of those luminous lands of the Caribbean, which for more than four centuries, has addressed the Mother of God with that beautiful title,” Francis wrote.
Not only is the feast of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre a special day for the faithful in Cuba, it’s also cause for celebration among Cuban Catholics in South Florida who flock to La Ermita, the National Shrine of Our Lady of Charity, in Coconut Grove.
But the feast day Mass was celebrated at the much larger BankUnited Center. A replica of the virgin statue that was smuggled out of Cuba in a suitcase in 1961 and is usually at La Ermita, made the journey for the Mass.
“In particular let us pray for Cubans who have been exiles and had to leave their homeland, accompanied by the Virgin Mary Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, whom we venerate today, and have come to Miami and the entire United States,” the Rev. Peter Baldacchino, auxiliary bishop of Miami, said in his homily. “Also let us pray for all the Cuban people in Cuba and around the world.”