On his last full day in Cuba before going to the United States, Pope Francis went where no pope had ever gone before, to Holguin, the island’s third largest city and a center of culture and music.
There he delivered a strong message of hope as he addressed two important issues. He first affirmed that change is possible in Cuba today, and resistance to it can be overcome because Jesus can “transform and change hearts.” Next, he referred to the difficulties the church is experiencing on this island as it seeks to carry out its mission, and how it is responding in a creative way.
One hundred and fifty thousand Cubans gave him a truly festive and enthusiastic welcome when he arrived aboard the popemobile in the Plaza de la Revolución of this city of almost half a million people (27 percent of whom are Catholic).
He arrived around 10 o’clock, after an hour and 20 minute early morning flight from Havana, to the immense delight of the ecstatic crowd, many of whom huddled under umbrellas and various forms of headgear to protect themselves from the burning sun.
The temperature was again in the high 90s, and the humidity was near that level, too, but Francis was clearly delighted. He stopped to kiss babies and young children as he drove among the crowd, always smiling and waving. His first major document was called “The Joy of the Gospel,” and he personified this joy, as we have often seen.
It was a very special day for the pope “from the end of the world.” It was September 21, the feast of Saint Matthew the Apostle, the day that he received his call to the priesthood in an almost mystical way in 1953, at the age of 17. He has since revealed that he was on his way to a picnic and party that day when, as he passed a church in the Flores district of Buenos Aires, he felt an irresistible urge to enter the church and go to confession.
During that confession he had an extraordinary experience of God’s mercy that has marked his whole life, and his pontificate. He came out of the church convinced that God was calling him to be a priest. He returned home without going to the party. Later in life, when he became a bishop, he took as his motto the words linked to the conversion of St. Matthew: “Choosing and having mercy.” He came to Cuba as “a messenger of mercy,” and he has spoken about mercy often in his talks.
The bishop of Holguin, Emilio Aranguren Echeverria, recalled all this at the end of Mass, and the Cubans responded with joyful applause.
President Raul Castro was also present at the Mass and listened attentively, as he had at the Mass in Havana yesterday. He knows this city well, as he and his brother Fidel were born in this region.
Francis’ homily in other parts of the world would have been considered “pastoral,” but in the present day situation of Cuba, a country engaged in a slow process of transition and transformation, his words inevitably took on an incisive social and political dimension, as was the case in Havana yesterday.
He began by recalling that today is the feast of St. Matthew. Matthew’s is a story of conversion, which the apostle himself describes in his Gospel, recounting his encounter with Jesus.
Wearing red vestments, Francis spoke from the lectern. He explained that Matthew was a publican and collected taxes from the Jews to give to the Romans. People looked down upon his kind and considered them sinners, and despised them. “One could hardly eat, speak or pray with the likes of these. For the people, they were traitors: They extorted from their own to give to others.” But then one day, when Matthew was sitting at his table collecting taxes, Jesus passed by, and looked at him and said, “Follow me.” Matthew got up and followed him.
Reflecting on this encounter, Francis noted that Jesus “looked at Matthew calmly, peacefully. He looked at him with eyes of mercy; he looked at him as no one had ever looked at him before. And this look unlocked Matthew’s heart; it set him free, it healed him, it gave him hope, a new life.” The same happened to others in the Gospel, including Mary Magdalene and Peter, and it has happened also “to each of us,” the pope said.
Commenting on this conversion, he said: “This is our story, and it is like that of so many others,” because each of us is “a sinner, whom Jesus has looked upon.”
He reminded his audience that Jesus “can see beyond appearances, beyond sin, beyond failures and unworthiness. He sees beyond our rank in society. He sees beyond this, to our dignity as sons and daughters, a dignity at times sullied by sin, but one which endures in the depth of our soul. He came precisely to seek out all those who feel unworthy of God, unworthy of others.”
Francis, who has come to Cuba as “a missionary of mercy,” reminded those present and the many watching on TV that after his encounter with Jesus “Matthew is no longer the same; he is changed inside” and “transformed,” and this gave rise in him “to missionary activity, service, self-giving.” Indeed, the pope added, Jesus “heals our short-sightedness and pushes us to look beyond, not to be satisfied with appearances or with what is politically correct.”
Knowing there is resistance to change on this island, Francis told them Jesus “opens the way and invites us to follow him” and “slowly to overcome our preconceptions and our reluctance to think that others, much less ourselves, can change.” His gaze “transforms our way of seeing things, his heart transforms our hearts.”
There is tension, even division, between Cubans linked to an ideology and believers, as the young man stated so clearly the previous evening at the youth rally in Havana. Then Francis urged the young to commit themselves to “the culture of encounter,” to “social friendship,” to “solidarity,” and he advised them on life’s journey to “never walk alone,” and so move forward to reconciliation between all the islanders.
In his homily today, Francis reminded the Catholic community throughout the island that people can change, even those who do much wrong, as the Gospel story shows. But that change must begin in one’s own heart, without waiting for the other person to change. To foster such conversion, he urged believers to “gaze upon the Lord in prayer, in the Eucharist, in Confession, in our brothers and sisters, especially those who feel excluded or abandoned,” as well as “the sick, the prisoners, the elderly and families in difficulty,” and “learn to see them as Jesus sees us,” that is to see in each person “the image of his Father.”
Both in his homily in Havana yesterday and in Holguin today, Francis sought to encourage the Catholic community in Cuba to be a missionary church, to go out and care for the poor and the outcast, and in this way to work for reconciliation. His words gave support to the pastoral plan, which the church here, inspired by the document of Aparecida, has decided on for the period 2014-20, though he did not mention it.
In Holguin, he also addressed the still difficult – though improving– situation of the church on this island. He told them, “I know the efforts and the sacrifices” the church here is making “to bring Christ’s word and presence to all, even in the most remote areas.”
This was a reference to the fact that there are not enough churches in many parts of the country, not just in isolated rural areas, but especially in the centers of new urbanization, which have been growing rapidly in recent years. For many decades the government did not grant permission for the building of new churches, which has caused a major problem in terms of evangelization. But the Cuban church has responded in a creative way to this critical situation, and, with the help of missionaries from Argentina in Holguin, she has developed “mission houses,” where families offer their homes as a place of prayer, for listening to the Word of God, for catechesis and community life. Francis praised “these mission houses,” describing them “small signs of God’s presence in our neighborhoods.”
In addition to all this, the growing positive relationship between the church and government here has begun to produce some dividends. Thus, in recent times, the government has granted permission for the building of three new churches, including one in Havana and one in Santiago de Cuba – 66 miles distance from Holguin – where Francis went this afternoon, on the final stage of his visit.
On arrival at the airport of Santiago de Cuba, Francis drove about 20 miles to the island’s famous Marian shrine of the “Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre” (“The Virgin of Charity of El Cobre”), which is linked to the history and identity of all Cubans.
He brought flowers and prayed for several minutes in silence in front of the revered wooden statue of Our Lady. He then read a prayer in public, which included requests for reconciliation and peace among all Cubans, as well as for the elderly and the young.
Pope Francis will celebrate Mass at this shrine in the morning, and then after a meeting with families, he will bid farewell to Cuba and take the three and a half hour flight to Washington, D.C.