At first impact the phrase “the Cuban Church” sounds like an oxymoron, or a misnomer and thoughts of an underground catholic presence might spring to mind. That might have been true at some point. However, Pope Benedict XVI’s planned visit to the Island nation later this month shows that is not the case today, and was not the case for a long time before the Cuban revolution. In fact the pope’s visit marks the 400th
anniversary of the devotion to Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre (Nuestra Senora de la Caridad de el Cobre).
It was in the 17th
century that three simple labourers from the local slaughterhouse set out in small boat into Nipe Bay, off the north coast of eastern Cuba, in search of salt to preserve their meat. As they sailed along they spotted something small and white bobbing amongst the waves, almost blending into the white froth of the gentle waves. They thought it was a bird of some sort but couldn’t tell, so they rowed toward it. What they discovered was not a bird, but a statue of a girl. They pulled the statue out of the water and realized it was the Virgin Mary, holding the child Jesus in one arm and a gold cross in the other hand. An inscription somewhere on the statue read “yo soy la virgin de la Caridad”
or “I am the Virgin of Charity.”
The church in El Cobre was dedicated to St. James – Santiago in Spanish- who was the patron saint of the Spanish conquest. Instead of placing Our Lady in the church dedicated to Santiago the three young men made a thatched hut for her. However, on three consecutive nights the statue disappeared from the little hut only to be found on a hilltop above El Cobre. Finally, in 1630 when the copper mine that was the heart of the town was closed and the slaves were freed, Our Lady was placed on the high altar in the church. It was a symbol of people’s triumph over the Spanish conquerors.
Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre was declared the patroness of Cuba in 1916 by Pope Benedict XVI and the shrine was later declared a basilica.
Pope Benedict XVI will visit the shrine that houses Our Lady of Charity of el Cobre as a “pilgrim of charity”. Fr. Eugenio Castellanos told Catholic News Service the Holy Father’s one hour visit to the shrine visit will be private, although arrangements are being made so the people who gather outside will be able to hear anything the pope might say and see images of his visit.
The Holy Father will celebrate Mass at Santiago de Cuba’s Antonio Maceo Revolutionary Square and up to 300,000 people are expected to attend. The government has announced that anyone who wants to attend Mass with the Holy Father will be able to take time off with pay. It had not yet been decided if the days of the Pope’s visit would be declared public holidays in order to help with traffic flow.
Pope Benedict XVI is only the second pontiff to visit Cuba. In 1998 Pope John Paul II made a six day visit to Cuba, during which he had a one hour long private meeting with then-president Fidel Castro and asked for the release of political prisoners. Cuban president Raul Castro has already announced that Cuba will release 2,900 political prisoners this spring in light of the papal visit and the anniversary of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre.
photo courtesy of CNS