MIAMI _ For the businessman who has changed his politics, the Miami priest who tends to an exile flock, the retired college math professor who has searched her conscience for guidance and the lawyer who has long advocated reconciliation, the pilgrimage to Cuba next month represents more than an opportunity to see Pope Benedict XVI celebrate Mass.
The trip signals hope. Hope that the island will open itself up to freedom. Hope that Miami’s Cuban-American community has matured enough to consider other approaches. Hope that the pilgrims’ presence, and that of their religious leader, will show the world that change is possible.
The pope’s three-day-trip, which will commemorate the 400th anniversary of the appearance of Our Lady of Charity, Cuba’s patron saint, is bringing together faithful from all walks of life who share one belief: Benedict’s visit to the communist island, the second by a pontiff in 14 years, marks one more step in the long journey of bringing the Cuban people together.
“This,” says Cuban-born Rev. Fernando Heria, pastor of St. Brendan’s Catholic Church, “is an opportunity to break myths on both sides. This is a pilgrimage of love.”
Many agree. “Our presence is the best testimonial,” says Margarita Cuervo, a parishioner at Epiphany Catholic Church and a professor emeritus at Miami Dade College. “I’m going to express my solidarity and share my faith and hope with the long-suffering people in Cuba.”
And from Miami attorney John de Leon, who calls his first trip to his parents’ homeland in 1992 life changing: “The pope is sending an incredibly important message to the world, and it’s a message that the Vatican is willing to keep engaging Cuba, that the world needs to open to Cuba and Cuba to the world.”
The Archdiocese of Miami is sponsoring the trip to Cuba during the pope’s visit, March 26-28, led by Archbishop Thomas Wenski. Hundreds have applied for the trip. Most pilgrims are from Miami, but faithful are coming from all over the country, including New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Tampa and St. Augustine. It’s not yet clear how many other pilgrims, both Cuban and non-Cuban, will visit the communist island on flights through independent charters.
One thing appears certain, though. The opposition that bedeviled Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Cuba in January 1998 is not as large or as vocal. Back then, the Archdiocese was forced to cancel a cruise ship charter that was scheduled to take thousands of the faithful to the island. Now, 14 years later, “we as a community have matured,” says Andy Gomez, a senior fellow for the Institute for Cuban and Cuban American studies at the University of Miami. “I think we’re more realistic.”
Much has changed, too, on the other side of the Florida Straits. Fidel Castro is no longer in power, having ceded the reins to his more pragmatic brother Raul. And the Catholic church has become a social force in the island’s society, brokering the release of political prisoners and lobbying to halt the harassment of some dissidents. “Democracy is not going to happen overnight,” says Gomez, who will be in Cuba for the pope’s visit. “But the church also realizes it can play an important role in the changes that are going to come.”
In Miami, Gomez, adds, some of the entrenched hard-liners have either died or evolved in their stance. A growing number of Cuban-Americans are questioning a 53-year-old failed policy of isolation. What’s more, the sight of enthusiastic throngs greeting Pope John Paul 14 years ago proved to be an eye-opening experience for some exiles _ those who were there to witness it and those who refused to go but watched from Miami.
Businessman Carlos Saladrigas was one of them. He spearheaded the opposition to the church-sponsored cruise in 1998. But “after I saw the images on television and I heard what was being said, it was clear to me that I had made a mistake. I realized I wanted to be there,” he says.
Those powerful images got him thinking _ and talking. He spoke at length with Father Jose Conrado Rodriguez, an outspoken priest from a parish in Santiago de Cuba. Father Rodriguez is best known for the 2009 open letter he sent Raul Castro condemning the restrictions on freedoms and the harassment of his parishioners. “He convinced me it was necessary to seek a neutral process,” Saladrigas said _ a process the Catholic church could facilitate.
Saladrigas and wife, Olga, practicing Catholics who met as teenagers teaching catechism classes in Miami, will be in Cuba for Benedict’s visit. He defends the church’s position against those who claim that a religious institution should not play into Castro’s hands. “The church is doing what it always does,” he adds. “It provides moral guidance. It spreads the gospel. This is about evangelization, about hope.”
Saladrigas echoes the words of other pilgrims, who say the gradual opening of a totalitarian government bodes well. De Leon, president of the Greater Miami Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says Benedict’s trip _ the second by a pope to the small Caribbean nation in less than 15 years _ signals an opportunity to engage the Cubans on the island. De Leon also went to Cuba for Pope John Paul’s 1998 visit., a trip, he says, that made an impact on the island.
“The pope is serving as a force for reconciliation,” says de Leon, who will be representing la Asociacion Cubana de la Orden de Malta, a charitable Catholic group. “I’m very much a believer that when you open up doors to faith and religion, miracles happen.”
That’s also the message Cuban-born Felipe Estevez, bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine, is spreading to the dozen faithful who will accompany him to the island in March. He calls the visit a viaje de re-encuentro, a trip of reunion. “It’s time to heal the separation between families, between Cubans,” says Estevez, who has been back to Cuba as a priest several times. “Cuba is more than a political party. It’s a people, a society.”
Estevez says he understands why some exiles have vowed to never return to the island as long as the Castros are in power. “There’s been a lot of oppression, a lot of hurt. But at the same time, the island doesn’t belong to the party or to one man. It belongs to the people.”
For some pilgrims, the trip back is expected to be very emotional. Cuervo, for instance, hopes to visit a cousin, whose son is now a priest. She also hopes to stop in on the nuns from Religiosas del Apostolado, the religious order who taught her in Cuba. “This is a religious pilgrimage,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to find out how we can be of help and to be blessed in a special way by Our Lady of Charity and our Pope.”
In 1998, she debated whether she wanted to return to the island. Wenski, at the time not yet a bishop, gave her this piece of advice: “Let the spirit guide you.” She did and applied to go on a one-day charter flight, but a visa mix-up kept her stranded in Miami. When she finally went several months later _ the first time she had returned to her homeland in more than 35 years _ she distributed rosaries and prayer cards.
“There was such a spiritual hunger,” she recalls, tears welling. She expects to see the same in March.
Not all pilgrims going to the island are Cuban. Ralph Gazitua is is Chilean, a devout Catholic ordained as a deacon 25 years ago. Accompanying him will be his wife, Maria Elena “Cookie,” a Cuban whose parents came here before the revolution, and one of his two sons, Luis Andres, a lawyer. Though they have no family on the island, they hope to connect with the Cuban people through their faith.
“The real focus of the trip for me is to bring a spiritual message,” Luis Andres says. “This can be the start of a cultural, political and economic renaissance on the island.”
Ralph Gazitua, has led the prison ministry for the Archdiocese of Miami for more than two decades and sees some similarities between his work in those institutions and efforts to spread the gospel in Cuba.
“I’ve seen amazing things happen through the force of prayer,” says Gazitua, who has visited the Vatican several times. “Our message as a group of pilgrims should be clear. Through strong faith, everything is possible.”