HAVANA TIMES, Sept 6 (IPS) — The Catholic Church seems to be expecting a rise in religious sentiment among the Cuban population as a result of the climate of dialogue and more relaxed relations with the government seen since the 1998 visit of Pope John Paul II.
This is a new time, “where the Christian faith is once again valued,” said Cardinal Jaime Ortega, archbishop of Havana, at the start of a crowded public mass on Sunday in honor of Our Lady of Charity. A statue of the Virgin has been touring the country since August 2010 on a pilgrimage that will end Dec. 30.
The procession is part of the festivities planned by the Catholic Church to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the statue of the “mother and patron saint” of Cuba by three fishermen.
The celebration culminates in 2012 with a Jubilee Year, and many pilgrims from around the country and from abroad are expected to converge on the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre.
The original statue is on view in the basilica that houses the shrine, 12 km from Santiago de Cuba (861 km east of Havana). The small statue was found in 1612 by two Indian brothers, Juan and Rodrigo de Hoyos, and a young black boy, Juan Moreno. According to the legend, the statue was floating on a plank in the Bay of Nipe off the island’s northeast coast. On the board was the inscription “I am the Virgin of Charity.”
The celebration of this unique discovery could be propitious for a visit from Pope Benedict XVI, successor to the late John Paul II. In a brief chat with journalists, Cardinal Ortega confirmed that the invitation had been made, and that the Pope “has never said that he cannot come, but has said he would like to come,” or has responded with a “God willing.”
For Ortega, the important thing is that Benedict has not said no, although he noted that the pontiff is almost 85 years old and has other obligations and visits planned. In the city of Madruga, 64 km from the capital, the cardinal received the committee that brought the Virgin after she toured the Matanzas.
The statue is a replica of the so-called Mambí Virgin, on display in the Church of Santo Tomás Apóstol in Santiago de Cuba. It is the same statue that was taken on a previous pilgrimage nationwide in 1952, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the republic. The Mambís, or independence fighters, especially venerated Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre.
That event contributed to strengthening faith throughout the island, according to Catholic sources at the time. That objective was no different from the current one, given that bishops have called on all Cubans, whether or not they are believers, both in Cuba and abroad, to celebrate the Virgin’s fourth centenary.
In his homily, Ortega said that the enthusiasm with which the Virgin has been received and the fruits of love that were left in her wake throughout Cuba made the pilgrimage an unforgettable event, an awakening of the Christian faith among the Cuban people. “The times of fear and retreat have been left behind,” he said, adding that the Virgin had come to “stir up the faith dormant in our hearts.”
The statue was welcomed with singing and repeated shouts of “viva” for Our Lady of Charity. Some people prayed with tears running down their cheeks. “I asked her for health for my children, that’s all I care about,” Bárbara Díaz, a resident of the small rural town of Niña Sierra, where the Virgin began her tour of the Havana diocese early Sunday, told IPS.
“We love her because she is the mother of all of us. Whenever I’m having trouble, I go to her. I have great faith in her,” said Mayda Torres, a resident of Madruga who described herself as a Catholic, but “not one who goes to church every Sunday.” Torres said many young people are going to church now. “It wasn’t like that 20 or 25 years ago,” she said.
During the pilgrimage, the statue, no more than 25 centimeters high, has been taken to hospitals, nursing homes, health clinics, and even prisons. “It is impressive how she inspires unity,” Ramón Suárez Polcari, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Havana, said in an interview with the Catholic magazine Palabra Nueva.
“Those who have participated in the pilgrimage until now all agree that it has exceeded all expectations,” Gustavo Andújar, vice president of Signis, the World Catholic Association for Communication, told IPS.
After the process of an easing of tensions, better relations and greater openness that emerged from the preparations and events for Pope John Paul’s 1998 visit to Cuba, the unprecedented dialogue in May 2010 between Ortega and President Raúl Castro further contributed to the climate of cooperation necessary to the success of this Catholic celebration.
The talks resulted in the release of 130 political prisoners. And analysts point to the “major achievements” as including the recognition of the Catholic Church as a valid interlocutor of the State in internal affairs, and the search “among Cubans” for a solution to the nation’s problems, without external interference or conditions.
For believers of the Yoruba religion, Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre represents Ochún, a mixed-race deity who rules freshwater, whose virtues include her healing powers and her protection of pregnant women. Ochún dresses in yellow, like the sandy banks of rivers. That is the color of the clothing worn by the Virgin.