Thousands of Cuban Catholics flocked to Havana Bay on Friday for an open-air mass marking the end of a 16-month island tour of the statue of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint, Agence France Presse reports.
The service was led by Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the 73 year-old head of Cuba’s Catholic Church. Also present were senior members of Cuba’s Communist Party, including Vice President Esteban Lazo and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, as well as the archbishop of the US city of Miami, Thomas Wenski.
The centerpiece was a statue of the Virgin Mary cradling the baby Jesus in her left arm. The statue, according to legend, was found by local fishermen off eastern Cuba after a storm in 1612 and was bone-dry despite the tempest.
In the service, Ortega asked “our mother and patroness” to intercede so there can be “peace and fraternity” among Cubans, and for help for government officials “so those necessary transformations in the economic and social life that Cubans await can continue advancing without setbacks.”
The statue, encased in a clear glass box, arrived on the roof of a truck escorted by National Revolutionary Police officers on motorcycles.
“This is a moving event — I never thought it could happen,” said Arai Cavernilla, a 34-year-old pediatric nurse from Havana who was at the mass. “There is no better way to say farewell to the patroness than in such a beautiful place, next to the sea,” added Diosdada Mate, 78.
The statue has criss-crossed 28,000-kilometers (18,000 miles) of the communist Caribbean island since August 2010, when the tour began at the relic’s sanctuary in the eastern town of El Cobre.
The long journey, the first such event since 1951-52, comes ahead of a visit by Pope Benedict XVI to mark the 400th anniversary of the relic’s discovery. The pontiff is expected in March, although no date has been set.
In a recent statement, the conference of Cuban bishops underscored the significance of the anniversary and the papal visit, particularly in spurring reconciliation among Cubans. “Reunion and reconciliation among Cubans should be one fruit of the Jubilee Year,” the bishops said.
The communist takeover in 1959 caused deep divisions in Cuba as millions were forced into foreign exile. More than two million emigres and their descendants live in 40 countries, including more than 80 percent in the United States, mostly in the southern state of Florida.
Benedict XVI’s predecessor, John Paul II, made a historic visit to Cuba in January 1998. John Paul urged the Castro regime to open up, saying the world would return the favor.
There are some signs of change. In 2011 President Raul Castro ushered in economic reforms that should give Cubans greater control of private property, and the Catholic Church has become an important interlocutor. Last week Castro pardoned 2,991 prisoners, including seven dissidents, saying he had taken into account requests from Catholic clerics and various Protestant churches, as well as the upcoming papal visit.
Church authorities say five million Cubans, out of a total population of 11.2 million, came to pay tribute to the patron saint during its epic journey. Since reaching Havana on November 1, the relic has been displayed in more than 300 public sites — schools, hospitals, universities, prisons — even on Revolution Square, reserved for major celebrations of the Castro regime.
The pilgrimage grew out of a dialogue begun in May 2010 between the Cardinal Ortega and President Raul Castro who took over the reins of power in 2006 when his brother Fidel stepped down for health reasons.
The dialogue also led to the release of more than 130 political prisoners, most of whom were sent to exile in Spain, the opening of a seminary and various cultural centers by the Catholic Church.
The religious thaw began in the 1990s, with Catholics being allowed to join the Communist Party, which a year later officially switched from atheism to secularism.
Catholics today make up a little over 10 percent of the Cuban population, with the vast majority practicing Santería, a fusion of west African religious beliefs, native Indian traditions and aspects of Catholicism.