When Pope Francis arrives in Cuba late Saturday afternoon he’ll find a country in transition that is forging a new relationship with the United States and undertaking economic change but not nearly fast enough to satisfy the needs and desires of most Cubans.
But he will also encounter at least one constant: the same Communist government in power as when the 78-year-old pope was studying as a Jesuit novice named Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
The Argentina-born pontiff also comes to the island at a time when many Cubans are thirsting for a message of hope and searching for a way forward. That the first Latin American pope will be speaking to them in their native language could make his message even more powerful.
In a short “fraternal” greeting televised Thursday night in Cuba, Francis said he would visit the Cuban people to “share the faith and hope.” The pope said he had a very simple message for them: “Jesus loves you very much, Jesus sincerely loves you; he always carries you in his heart. . . . He never abandons us.”
He said he would be visiting the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba, as just another pilgrim, “like a son that wants to arrive at the home of his mother. To her I entrust this trip and also I entrust it to all Cubans.”
The pope will visit three Cuban cities, Havana, Holguín and Santiago, as well as El Cobre, an old copper mining town outside Santiago where he will deliver the homily during a Mass celebrated at the shrine.
Ahead of the visit, President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro talked by telephone Friday about the upcoming United Nations General Assembly that Castro will attend for the first time. They also discussed the approaching visit of the pope and the contribution of the pontiff in bringing the two countries together.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez says the government has worked hard to make the visit “memorable” and one a pope such as Francis “deserves for his tenure as pope, for his positions that inspire admiration in Latin America and the Caribbean and in our people and for his being the first Latin American pope.”
He said he expected the papal trip would be “a transcendent event for all our people — believers and non-believers alike.”
On Friday an excited group of nearly 200 pilgrims from South Florida and around the United States arrived in Havana for the first leg of the pope’s visit.
Irma Henneberg, who was traveling with her husband, Bernard, and daughter Joanne Tyson on the Archdiocese of Miami trip, called it a “once in a lifetime journey. When else would we be able to see the pope in Cuba?”
Henneberg, of Weston, celebrated her birthday Thursday and said she’s praying that her birthday present will be a blessing from Pope Francis.
The two-time breast cancer survivor said she became more religious after her illness. “I think the Lord has kept me here for a reason so I can work for him and bring people to him,” she said.
Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who wore a Panama hat, said all the pilgrims were filled with excitement and expectation.
At the airport, Wenski was mobbed by journalists. Cubans waiting for their relatives to arrive wondered what all the commotion was about and who was the man dressed in black and wearing a Panama hat. “It’s the pope’s cousin,” said one.
The road from the airport, which Francis will follow into the city, was lined with large banners and billboards saying Bienvenido a Cuba Papa Francisco (Welcome to Cuba Pope Francis) and people decorated their doors, windows and even a market stand with smaller poster versions of the billboards.
The facade of the National Library, which faces the plaza where the papal Mass will be held, is blanketed with a huge rendering of Jesus that says “Come to me.”
Cubans said that they were genuinely happy that the pope is coming and hope that everyone — from Communist Party militants to non-believers to devout Catholics — expresses their appreciation for the pope’s visit.
“It’s absolutely magnificent to have Pope Francis with us, a pope who above all is Latin American and understands much better what we’re living,” said Siliva Johoy, a sports journalist for Radio Rebelde. “Of course, I’m going to the Mass and I imagine that the plaza will be so full that not another person will fit.”
She said she hoped that the pope’s visit would “do something to get rid of the bloqueo [blockade, the Cuban term for the embargo]. The blockade just doesn’t make any sense.”
Those taking part in the pilgrimage organized by the Archdiocese of Miami planned to stake out a place in a Miramar park to watch as the pope traveled from the Havana airport to the Vatican’s Nunciatura. He was scheduled to touch down at José Martí International Airport at 4:05 p.m. Saturday. He’ll leave Cuba at noon Tuesday for a visit to the United States that includes Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia.
“This is my third papal pilgrimage, and each one was uniquely different,” said Vivian Mannerud, who helped the archdiocese organize trips when Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998 and when Pope Benedict XVI came in 2012. “Having seen this pope in action, I think whatever happens will be a total surprise.”
Rodríguez also noted Francis’ role in Cuba’s evolving relationship with the United States. The two countries reestablished diplomatic relations on July 20 after 18 months of secret negotiations that included meetings in the Vatican and letters of encouragement from the pope to both Obama and Castro.
“Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits should take advantage of the opportunity to build bridges,” said Rev. Gilbert Walker, rector at the Nuestra Señora de La Merced church in Old Havana. “It’s a good thing that has happened and I think it’s wonderful that the pope has helped behind the scenes.”
“The people here are very excited about his visit,” he said. “There is a freshness and directness to his approach. He is coming as a missionary of mercy and that message of reconciliation, forgiveness and healing is one that we all need to hear.”
The Miami-based Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba notes that during previous papal visits dissidents and human rights activists had their phones cut off, and that some were prevented from leaving their homes and were otherwise harassed.
Francis once called for transformation of Cuba’s political institutions, free participation of its citizens in governance and for respect and promotion of human rights, the FHRC said. In a joint statement, the Cuban American National Foundation and the FHRC urged the pope “to pay special attention in his visit to today’s Cuba, whose authoritarian regime still excludes the important tenants he once professed for the betterment of the Cuban people, and all mankind.”
The Ladies in White, a dissident group that marches in support of political prisoners, has asked to speak with the pope during his visit and plans to attend his masses but no such meeting appears on Francis’ official itinerary. The pope, however, is expected to dip into the crowd and personally greet Cubans before a huge Sunday Mass at the Plaza de la Revolución.
The Miami pilgrims will attend Mass at La Merced Monday morning before they leave Cuba. As they return home, Miami Archbishop Wenski will follow the pope for his appearances in Holguín and El Cobre.
In some ways, La Merced typifies the challenges the Catholic Church faces in Cuba. The Baroque church is in the midst of a marginal neighborhood and like a growing number of Catholic churches here, it is actively involved in social programs for nearby residents.
The church also draws adherents of Afro-Cuban religions who have syncretized Our Lady of Mercy with Obatalá, the orisha or god known as the creator of mankind, and is a magnet for the white-clad initiates of Santería.
The reality of religion in Cuba, Walker said, is there is a spectrum of belief from those who are devout Catholics or Protestants to Catholics who are sympathetic to Santería and those who are dedicated Santería devotees.
While he said the church does draw the distinction of what Catholicism is all about, at the same time it does try to be welcoming to all. He likened religious belief in Cuba to ajiaco, a stew of various meats and vegetables prepared across the Caribbean and Latin America. “I think the Cuban religious experience is a lot like ajiaco — a lot of elements go into it.”
Follow @heraldmimi for updates on the pope’s trip to Cuba.