SANTIAGO DE CUBA — Streams of hopefuls traveled overnight, on buses and motorbikes, arriving under nightfall early Tuesday morning for a chance to see the pope on his last day in Cuba.
Pope Francis celebrated a morning Mass on Tuesday at Our Lady of Charity shrine, dedicated to Cuba’s revered patron saint, in nearby El Cobre then visited Santiago’s main cathedral and blessed the city. Later in the day, he’ll board a plane to the USA to start his visit there, where he's scheduled to travel to Washington, Philadelphia and New York.
Hundreds of faithful made the hilly one-mile trek from the main highway to the church of Our Lady of Charity, 14 miles northwest of Santiago de Cuba. Some had invitations to attend the mass. Others came just to partake in the historic event.
“This is for all Cubans, in and outside of the island,” said Neirelis Rojas Palmero, 68, who woke up at 1 a.m. and caught a bus from nearby La Maya to stand with the throngs of onlookers outside the church. Like many others, she didn’t have an invite.
The Cuban government has generally been hostile to religion ever since Fidel Castro's socialist revolution installed an atheist government on the island nation. Now, President Raúl Castro, Fidel's brother, has said he is considering returning to Catholicism.
On Tuesday, Francis expressed admiration for Cubans who have kept the faith alive. Inside the church, the pontiff recounted how, 100 years ago, Pope Benedict XV declared Our Lady of Charity the patron saint of Cuba.
“In this shrine, which keeps alive the memory of God’s holy and faithful pilgrim people in Cuba, Mary is venerated as the Mother of Charity,” he said. “From here, she protects our roots, our identity, so that we may never stray to paths of despair.”
"Generation after generation, day after day, we are asked to renew our faith. We are asked to live the revolution of tenderness as Mary, our Mother of Charity, did," Francis added.
The pope wrapped up a four-day tour of Cuba, where he spoke to thousands at outdoor Masses in Havana and Holguin, met with ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro and addressed students in Havana.
The trip to Cuba carried particular weight because of Francis’ role as an intermediator in the renewing of diplomatic ties between the United States and the communist nation. It was the third papal visit to Cuba but the first by a Latin American pope who delivered all his speeches and homilies in his native Spanish.
The morning Mass at Our Lady of Charity was considered by many as the pope’s most significant stop, as it is revered by many Cubans, not just Catholics. Supporters lined the street outside the church and cheered when the pontiff exited the sanctuary in his popemobile.
Jose Raul Cardenas Rojas, 28, got up 1 a.m. Tuesday and took two buses from Paloma Soriano to attend the Mass. He had obtained a coveted invitation through a local church.
“This is not just for Cubans – it’s for the relationship between Cuba and the U.S.,” Rojas said as he waited in line to get into the church. “We need to talk to reach an agreement, regardless of our differences.”
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Later, at Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral in Santiago’s main square, Francis stressed the importance of preserving the family unit. Several thousand supporters waited outside and heard the homily through loudspeakers. “Let us leave behind a world of families,” he said. “Let us care for our families, true spaces of freedom.”
Not everyone got up early to see the pope: Some didn’t sleep at all. Milagros de la Caridad Portondo, 70, took a bus at 9 p.m. Monday night from her home in the outskirts of Santiago de Cuba into the city center, then wandered from church to church all night, before making her way to Santiago de Cuba’s main square.
By 5:30 a.m., Portondo had found her spot in the plaza outside.
“I do it all in the name of God,” she said. “And for this pope, whom I adore.”
(Contributing: John Bacon in McLean, Va.)
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