Op-Ed

Different Cuba greeted Miami pilgrims

Pope Francis is greeted by a jubilant crowd in Havana’s Revolution Plaza in Cuba.
Pope Francis is greeted by a jubilant crowd in Havana’s Revolution Plaza in Cuba.

There will certainly be many stories in the next days and few weeks from those who joined Archbishop Thomas Wenski on the pilgrimage to receive the Holy Father in Cuba. It was an emotional trip for many reasons.

While for me the highlight of the trip, no doubt, was the opportunity to concelebrate the mass with Pope Francis, many other parts of the experience still resonate for me today.

Among those are the exchanges with the Cuban people.

Having visited Cuba previously, I found a friendlier, more hopeful populace during this trip. They responded favorably and with curiosity to my clerical collar, genuinely interested in hearing why we were there. The Cubans in our group, by and large, received a cordial reception.

I was impressed by the expressions of faith I saw.

The crowds of people lining up to see the motorcade, and their cheering and singing of religious songs, was heartwarming, as it was to see young people who are part of Catholic youth organizations from throughout the island going to the papal mass and happily participating in the celebration. This bodes well for the church in Cuba.

I was also surprised to find the entrepreneurial spirit of the Cuban people we know so well in Miami to be flourishing there in spite of many difficulties.

St. Thomas was founded in Havana, Cuba in 1946 by American Augustinians.

The Catholic Church has played a role in helping Cubans there find a way to take advantage of new opportunities, providing coursework to help new and existing small business entrepreneurs to succeed — not just for themselves, but so that they can help others to also benefit from this success.

Like some in the group who returned for the first time to a Cuba they had not seen in many years since their exile in the United States, I also returned to Havana to reconnect with our history. Many may not know that St. Thomas was founded in Havana, Cuba in 1946 by American Augustinians. Santo Tomas de Villanueva graduated many prominent and successful exiles — businesspeople, teachers, engineers and architects, among others. Our university, too, felt the pain of exile when our founders were forced to leave the island in 1961.

The university buildings have long been put to other uses. But the Santo Tomas Chapel, like other religious institutions — and for that matter many buildings throughout Havana — until recently remained vacant and severely neglected. Now back in the hands of the Catholic Church, we were able to go inside the chapel for the first time and learn about plans to renovate this beautiful building.

We look forward to the day this Catholic temple is able to again serve the faithful of Cuba, as the Cuban people look forward to a new day for their country.

Franklyn M. Casale is president of St. Thomas University.

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