Miami archbishop deems Pope Francis’ ‘emotional’ trip to Cuba a success

Pope Francis departs after giving final Mass in El Cobre, Cuba

Pope Francis is greeted by worshipers, as he departs, following his final Mass in El Cobre, Cuba. Video by Jim Wyss/Miami Herald Staff
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Pope Francis is greeted by worshipers, as he departs, following his final Mass in El Cobre, Cuba. Video by Jim Wyss/Miami Herald Staff

Thomas Wenski had one more mission to accomplish before leaving Cuban soil.

He stood in a small airport cafeteria, clad in a black guayabera and Panama hat, looked at his three travel companions and declared, “We’re going to the smoke room.”

Wenski’s trip would be incomplete without another Cuban cigar.

Miami’s archbishop, an enthusiast of Cuban culture, people and tabacos, left the island Tuesday after what he deemed a successful trip bringing Roman Catholic pilgrims to Havana and welcoming Pope Francis before the pontiff’s arrival in the U.S. Wenski also played tour guide to other clergy not quite as familiar with Cuba.

A cluster of news crews met Wenski at Miami International Airport, and he praised Francis’ “emotional” visit.

“The fact that he’s coming to the United States from Cuba — that’s a very important gesture,” Wenski said. “It’s a bridge he’s establishing, a bridge between Cuba and the United States, a bridge between Cubans in the United States and Cubans on the island.”

Wenski would spend a few hours in Miami — enough to shower, change and re-pack his suitcase, he said — before flying Tuesday night to Washington D.C. for Francis’ address to Congress on Thursday.

In Holguín, Wenski made it to Francis’ Mass — he deemed it “more populist” than the one in Havana, thanks in part to a lively choir, and noted Cuban leader Raúl Castro appeared briefly in need of aid to overcome the oppressive heat — but skipped other events on the island’s eastern end due to complicated logistics. Instead, he had dinner at a seafood paladar with Carlos and Olga María Saladrigas of Miami. Olga María Saladrigas, who was born in Holguín, reunited with her family Monday morning for only the third time in 50 years. Tuesday, Wenski and three fellow men of the cloth headed to Holguín’s Frank País International Airport to make their way to Miami.

But first, they had to find a light.

“Don’t leave without giving us fuego,” Wenski said in Spanish to a man finishing a cigarette in the airport’s throwback “Smoking Lounge.” The man pointed to a metallic box affixed to the wall: a built-in lighter. (“¡Qué peste!” sniffed another man who walked in — what a stench! — before promptly lighting up.)

Wenski pulled four cigars out of his guayabera pocket. A box of Cohibas was going for $69 at the airport, he said; the more modest Partagas Coronas Juniors in his hand had gone for $3.50 apiece. He handed them out to Auxiliary Bishop Peter Baldacchino of Miami, Auxiliary Bishop Octavio Cisneros of Brooklyn and Bishop Joe Vásquez of Austin, Texas.

“These are very good,” Vásquez proclaimed. “They’re very smooth.”

So what do four bishops having a smoke after spending a few days with the pope talk about?

About how Cubans received Francis. “Very, very well.” About how the pope appeared, physically. “Tired Sunday and Monday. Today, he looked well-rested.” About how Cuba has changed. “The billboards are not as politicized as they used to be.”

Wenski has visited Cuba many times, and Cisneros was born in what was then the province of Las Villas (now Villa Clara). But Baldacchino and Vásquez were concluding first trips to the island.

“It’s an eye-opener,” said Baldacchino, pastor of St. Kieran’s Catholic Church near Brickell. “It’s one thing to read about it. It’s another to see it.”

“I love the people,” Vásquez added. “Wonderful, wonderful place.”

“He had a good tour director!” Wenski chimed in.

Wenski didn’t only bring pilgrims to Cuba. The Miami archdiocese ordered specially embroidered sheets and towels on behalf of Santiago de Cuba Archbishop Dionisio García Ibáñez, said Wenski, who’s friendly with his Cuban counterparts.

But what Wenski said he liked best was sharing the trip with Cuban Americans who had struggled with their decision to return to the island, even though some of them were shut out of Francis’ Havana Mass over what he called a credentialing “snafu.”

“They described it as being very healing,” he said of the trip, noting that some pilgrims didn’t want to feel like they were going to Cuba as tourists helping the Castro regime stay afloat. “A pilgrimage gave them a reason for going — otherwise a lot of [emotional] baggage would have been there.”

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