Pope Francis’ trip to Cuba will focus on families, the young and strengthening the church

A billboard with an image of Pope John Paul II and a message that reads in Spanish; "Here is where the church Pope John Paul II is being built, "stands next to a wooden cross on a field, on the outskirts of Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015. Cubans have begun preparations to welcome Pope Francisco in September.
A billboard with an image of Pope John Paul II and a message that reads in Spanish; "Here is where the church Pope John Paul II is being built, "stands next to a wooden cross on a field, on the outskirts of Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015. Cubans have begun preparations to welcome Pope Francisco in September. AP

In the shadow of a giant image of Argentine Che Guevara, workmen are in the final stages of building the altar where Argentina-born Pope Francis will celebrate mass in the Plaza de la Revolución during his four-day visit to Cuba next month.

Tens of thousands of Cubans are expected to attend three masses in Havana, Holguín and El Cobre, which is outside Santiago, during the pope’s visit. Some 1,000 pilgrims from abroad, including 150 from the Archdiocese of Miami, also are expected in Cuba.

It falls to Rolando Suárez, lawyer for the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops, to coordinate the logistics for international pilgrims and to organize buses and other transport for Cubans from around the country who want to attend the masses and take part in other papal activities.

The church calculates that 32,000 Cubans from Sancti Spíritus to Pinar del Río will attend the mass in Havana as well as 16,000 nuns, priests and seminarians and tens of thousands from Havana itself, Suárez said. The mass in Holguín is expected to pull in 34,000 of the faithful from Ciego de Ávila to Guantánamo, not counting residents of the provincial capital itself.

In El Cobre, an old copper mining town, mass will be celebrated in the minor basilica of the National Sanctuary of Our Lady of Charity del Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint. Some 1,000 people — with representation from each Cuban province — are expected to be seated inside the basilica with another 2,000 outside.

Afterward, Francis plans a “family encounter” with 30 people from each of Cuba’s provinces at Santiago’s Cathedral of Our Lady of Assumption before leaving Cuba on Tuesday to continue his trip to Washington, D.C. — where he will meet with President Barack Obama at the White House and address a joint session of Congress — New York and Philadelphia. He’ll return to Rome on Sept. 27.

The pontiff’s visit to both countries points up his role in encouraging a rapprochement between the two formerly hostile neighbors. The two countries reestablished diplomatic relations and opened respective embassies on July 20 after a gap of more than a half-century.

Last September, before the history-making rapprochement was announced on Dec. 17, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, hand-delivered a letter from Pope Francis to the White House offering to help in whatever way he could in the secret negotiations going on between the two countries. Francis, who sent a personal letter to Cuban leader Raúl Castro, too, offered the Vatican as one of the meeting places for the talks.

The pope impressed the leaders. Obama has called him “the real deal,” and Castro has said he will be at all three masses in Cuba and might even consider a return to the Catholic Church.

Castro will get his chance to attend a papal mass when Francis delivers the homily at the 9 a.m. mass on Sept. 20 in the Plaza de la Revolución. Presiding over the 11-acre square are huge representations of Camilo Cienfuegos, a revolutionary hero who died mysteriously in October 1959, and Che Guevara, a revolutionary icon. The soaring José Martí Monument also makes the plaza a must-see for many visitors to Havana.

“The most important thing is what the pope will say,” Suárez said. “The messages will be in the homilies.”

Before the mass, the pope wants to shake hands with the people. “We’re asking for that but we will have to wait to see what security says,” Suárez said.

With less than a month to go, evidence of the pope’s impending arrival can be seen from the work underway at the plaza to the posters reading “Bienvenido (welcome) Francisco” that have begun to pop up around Cuba.

Castro, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez and Eusebio Leal, historian of Havana, met with Ortega on Monday to discuss preparations for the papal visit.

Getting ready is a challenge because the Vatican only announced in late April that Francis would be visiting Cuba. When Pope Benedict XVI visited, there was a year to get ready.

In Miami, the archdiocese’s trip to Cuba has been sold out for about two months, said Mary Ross Agosta, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese.

Vivian Mannerud, president of Airline Brokers, which is organizing the archdiocese trip, said 100 more people would have gone if there had been hotel availability. “There is a waiting list,” she said.

The Miami group will be on hand to watch the pope’s caravan arrive from the airport. “There will also be a lot of prayers and dinners together,” said Mannerud, who organized archdiocese trips to Cuba when Pope Benedict visited in March 2012 and for Pope John Paul II’s 1998 trip.

When Benedict visited Havana and Santiago, the Archdiocese of Miami sponsored two “springtime of faith” excursions to Cuba, one Havana only trip and another that began in Santiago and ended in Havana. About 300 people, including clergy members, staff and pilgrims, took part in those trips.

This time, there will be 150 local pilgrims who will arrive in Cuba on Sept. 18 and depart Sept. 21. They’ll spend their entire time in Havana, where Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski will offer masses on Friday and Saturday evenings at churches yet to be determined.

“He is staying with the pilgrims the whole time,” Ross Agosta said. “He would have liked to travel to Santiago, but transportation seems to be an issue.”

Santiago is 538 miles from Havana, and Holguín is 456 miles from the capital, making it difficult to participate in papal activities in more than one city during Francis’ tight schedule.

The archdiocese also is transporting by bus about 50 pilgrims to Washington where Wenski is among those invited to hear the pope speak before Congress, and it is taking 60 to 65 of its members to Philadelphia to see Francis.

If the number of international pilgrims coming to Cuba seems low, it’s probably because Latin Americans have already had a chance to see Francis this year during his eight-day trip to Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay in June, and because of his upcoming U.S. trip.

The pope is expected to arrive at Havana’s José Martí International Airport at 4:05 p.m. Sept. 19 and give a speech before departing in an open car that will take him through some heavily populated areas of the city. A children’s choir will greet him at the Nunciatura Apostólic where he’ll spend the night.

After the mass Sunday, he has a private lunch, a 4 p.m. meeting with Raúl Castro, vespers with priests, nuns and seminarians at Havana’s Cathedral and what’s billed as a greeting and remarks to 5,000 young people at the Father Félix Varela Cultural Center in the old San Carlos and San Ambrosio seminary. Among the center’s academic offerings is a master’s degree in business administration to support the economic changes in Cuba that have allowed people to go into business for themselves.

“FEUC [the Federation of Cuban University Students] asked for this meeting and the pope accepted,” said Suárez. Increasingly, young people are choosing to abandon the island in search of better opportunities elsewhere.

It’s unclear whether the pope will meet with dissidents as they have requested. Suárez said he doesn’t think he will. “This is a pastoral visit,” he said.

The next day, Francis will deliver the homily at a mass celebrated in Holguín’s Revolution Square before heading to Santiago in the late evening where he’ll spend most of his time in El Cobre before departing for Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C. at 12:30 p.m. Sept. 22.