People stand outside the shrine of Our Lady of Charity in El Cobre, Cuba, Sept. 22, as Pope Francis celebrates Mass inside the sanctuary dedicated to Cuba's patroness (CNS photo/Paul Haring).

Pope Francis Calls for “A Revolution of Love and Tenderness” in Cuba

Santiago de Cuba — Pope Francis called for “a revolution of love and tenderness” in Cuba in his homily at a Mass, enlivened by Caribbean music and hymns, at the country’s most famous Marian shrine, ‘La Virgen de la Caridad” (the Virgin of Charity) at El Cobre, about 15 miles from Santiago de Cuba, on the last day of his visit to this beautiful island.

He issued his call in an inspiring homily that summarized the message this “messenger of mercy” has been delivering here since his arrival last Saturday, Sept. 19.  He chose to do so at the shrine of “the Virgin of Charity at El Cobre”—a place that been a focal point in the history of the nation and its struggle for independence, and since then too.

Taking his cue from the Gospel of the day, Francis recalled that after accepting to be the mother of Jesus and learning that her cousin Elisabeth would have a child too, instead of thinking of herself, Mary set out immediately to visit her cousin and spend time with her, helping her. Francis presented Mary as the model for Christians, and quoting from his major document “the Joy of the Gospel” he told his audience, “Whenever we look to Mary, we come to believe once again in the revolutionary nature of love and tenderness.”

“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,” he said. “We are invited to “leave home” and to open our eyes and hearts to others.”

The Argentine pope’s decision to use the word ‘revolution’—and not just once—in Cuba was clearly deliberate and highly significant given that it has been the buzz word of the regime for over half a century, ever since the Castro brothers led the successful armed revolution in this island in 1959 that overthrew Battista and opened a new and often turbulent chapter in the history of this island people.

Francis is well aware that a political transition is under way in this country and he—like the local church here—wants this transition to involve reconciliation among the inhabitants of the island and lead to peace, prosperity, in a climate of full freedom for the church, where none of Cuba’s citizens are left behind or discarded, and where an ethic of inclusion prevails and all Cubans, overcoming their differences, work together for the common good.

He wants the church to makes its own important contribution to this process for the good of all the inhabitants of this land through “a revolution of love and tenderness,” a peaceful revolution which is the heart of Christianity. In his homily today, he spelled out clearly what this will entail for the church today and tomorrow in Cuba.

“Our revolution comes about through tenderness, through the joy which always becomes closeness and compassion, and leads us to get involved in, and to serve, the life of others,” he stated. “Our faith makes us leave our homes and go forth to encounter others, to share their joys, their hopes and their frustrations,” he added.

“Our faith, ‘calls us out of our house’, to visit the sick, the prisoner and those who mourn. It makes us able to laugh with those who laugh, and rejoice with our neighbors who rejoice,” he added.

Then in words that carried echoes of  his inspiring talk to the conclave before his election as pope in March 2013, he said, “Like Mary, we want to be a Church which serves, which leaves home and goes forth, which goes forth from its chapels, its sacristies, in order to accompany life, to sustain hope, to be a sign of unity.”

Francis went onto explain in even more concrete terms what this means for the church here in the coming years.“ Like Mary, the Mother of Charity—he said—we want to be a church which goes forth to build bridges, to break down walls, to sow seeds of reconciliation. Like Mary, we want to be a church which can accompany all those “pregnant” situations of our people, committed to life, to culture, to society, not washing our hands but rather walking with our brothers and sisters.”

Throughout his visit, in his talks and in his meeting with the young, Francis had advocated that believers and people of good will in Cuba should practice the culture of encounter, not confrontation, should seek the things that unite, not those that divide, should develop what he called “social friendship” and, care for the poor and those in difficulty, as well as work for the common good, and in this way discover each other in a new way. He advocated this as the path to a new Cuba.

Pope Francis delivered his message at this national Marian shrine. He was but the latest in a very long line of pilgrims—including Benedict XVI in 2012—that have come to pray before the famous statue over the past 400 years. Francis is the first pope to celebrate mass at this famous shrine which is so linked to Cuban identity.

“Ninety-nine percent of Cubans have a devotion to “La Virgen de la Caridad” (The Virgin of Charity), even though less than 10 percent of them are practicing Catholics,” Father Jorge Enrique Palma Arrue’, the chaplain at the most famous shrine in this island, told me in March 2012, before Benedict XVI’s.

Devotion to La Virgen—as she is known here—dates back to 1606 when three local fishermen found the 60 cm wooden statue floating on the water at Bahia de Nipe on the north-west coast of this beautiful Caribbean island, with the words written on the wood identifying her as “La Virgen de la Caridad.” Two of the fishermen were Indians—Juan and Rodrigo de Hoyos, the third was a black slave—Juan Moreno.  Their story is depicted in a series of paintings at the shrine.

After it was found, the sacred image was taken to the copper mines of El Cobre and, in 1684, the first shrine was built nearby to house the statue, and pilgrims began to come and pray before what from the beginning was considered a miraculous statue.

Soon devotion to La Virgen became intimately linked to major events in the history of the people of this island that include Indians, Africans, Spanish, Haitians and other ethnic groups.

“To be Cuban—‘La Cubania’—is to be devoted to the Virgin of Charity,” Padre Jorge told me. “There is a social, cultural and emotional sentiment to this devotion,” he explained, “but there is also an underlying religious sentiment.”

In 1886, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, who fought for the independence of Cuba prayed here for Cuba’s freedom. And on July 12, 1898, a Mass was celebrated here in thanksgiving for the end of the Spanish domination of the island. In his speech on arrival in Cuba, Pope Francis recalled that at the request of the veterans of the War of Independence Benedict XV, had declared patroness of Cuba on May 10, 1916.

In the 1950s many Cuban nationalists carried the image of La Virgen with them when they joined Fidel Castro and ‘Che’ Guevara on the Sierra Maestra mountains to fight against the Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista, and they succeeded in removing him in 1959. The mother of Fidel and Raul Castro reportedly gave her sons small golden statues of La Virgen asking her to grant the rebels victory. One wonders what memories went through President Raul Castro’s head today as he attended the Pope’s mass, and what thoughts filled his mind as listened to Francis’ homily.

Pope Francis prayed in silence at this shrine for many minutes soon after he arrived in Santiago de Cuba last evening, and in his homily this morning he reminded all Cubans that this shrine “keeps alive the memory of God’s holy and faithful pilgrim people in Cuba” and from here “she protects our roots, our identity, so that we may never stray to paths of despair.”

After that festive Mass, which was enlivened by Caribbean song and music, Pope Francis went to the cathedral in Santiago de Cuba, and then held a meeting with families. From there he drove to the airport, where President Castro waited to bid him farewell before he boarded the plane for Washington D.C., for his first ever visit to the United States.