McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
Saturday, February 25, 2012
MIAMI _ For the businessman who has changed his politics, the Miami
priest who tends to an exile flock, the retired college math professor
who has searched her conscience for guidance and the lawyer who has long
advocated reconciliation, the pilgrimage to Cuba next month represents
more than an opportunity to see Pope Benedict XVI celebrate Mass.
The trip signals hope. Hope that the island will open itself up to
freedom. Hope that Miami's Cuban-American community has matured enough
to consider other approaches. Hope that the pilgrims' presence, and that
of their religious leader, will show the world that change is possible.
The pope's three-day-trip, which will commemorate the 400th anniversary
of the appearance of Our Lady of Charity, Cuba's patron saint, is
bringing together faithful from all walks of life who share one belief:
Benedict's visit to the communist island, the second by a pontiff in 14
years, marks one more step in the long journey of bringing the Cuban
"This," says Cuban-born Rev. Fernando Heria, pastor of St. Brendan's
Catholic Church, "is an opportunity to break myths on both sides. This
is a pilgrimage of love."
Many agree. "Our presence is the best testimonial," says Margarita
Cuervo, a parishioner at Epiphany Catholic Church and a professor
emeritus at Miami Dade College. "I'm going to express my solidarity and
share my faith and hope with the long-suffering people in Cuba."
And from Miami attorney John de Leon, who calls his first trip to his
parents' homeland in 1992 life changing: "The pope is sending an
incredibly important message to the world, and it's a message that the
Vatican is willing to keep engaging Cuba, that the world needs to open
to Cuba and Cuba to the world."
The Archdiocese of Miami is sponsoring the trip to Cuba during the
pope's visit, March 26-28, led by Archbishop Thomas Wenski. Hundreds
have applied for the trip. Most pilgrims are from Miami, but faithful
are coming from all over the country, including New York, Los Angeles,
Boston, Tampa and St. Augustine. It's not yet clear how many other
pilgrims, both Cuban and non-Cuban, will visit the communist island on
flights through independent charters.
One thing appears certain, though. The opposition that bedeviled Pope
John Paul II's historic visit to Cuba in January 1998 is not as large or
as vocal. Back then, the Archdiocese was forced to cancel a cruise ship
charter that was scheduled to take thousands of the faithful to the
island. Now, 14 years later, "we as a community have matured," says Andy
Gomez, a senior fellow for the Institute for Cuban and Cuban American
studies at the University of Miami. "I think we're more realistic."
Much has changed, too, on the other side of the Florida Straits. Fidel
Castro is no longer in power, having ceded the reins to his more
pragmatic brother Raul. And the Catholic church has become a social
force in the island's society, brokering the release of political
prisoners and lobbying to halt the harassment of some dissidents.
"Democracy is not going to happen overnight," says Gomez, who will be in
Cuba for the pope's visit. "But the church also realizes it can play an
important role in the changes that are going to come."
In Miami, Gomez, adds, some of the entrenched hard-liners have either
died or evolved in their stance. A growing number of Cuban-Americans are
questioning a 53-year-old failed policy of isolation. What's more, the
sight of enthusiastic throngs greeting Pope John Paul 14 years ago
proved to be an eye-opening experience for some exiles _ those who were
there to witness it and those who refused to go but watched from Miami.
Businessman Carlos Saladrigas was one of them. He spearheaded the
opposition to the church-sponsored cruise in 1998. But "after I saw the
images on television and I heard what was being said, it was clear to me
that I had made a mistake. I realized I wanted to be there," he says.
Those powerful images got him thinking _ and talking. He spoke at length
with Father Jose Conrado Rodriguez, an outspoken priest from a parish in
Santiago de Cuba. Father Rodriguez is best known for the 2009 open
letter he sent Raul Castro condemning the restrictions on freedoms and
the harassment of his parishioners. "He convinced me it was necessary to
seek a neutral process," Saladrigas said _ a process the Catholic church
Saladrigas and wife, Olga, practicing Catholics who met as teenagers
teaching catechism classes in Miami, will be in Cuba for Benedict's
visit. He defends the church's position against those who claim that a
religious institution should not play into Castro's hands. "The church
is doing what it always does," he adds. "It provides moral guidance. It
spreads the gospel. This is about evangelization, about hope."
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Saladrigas echoes the words of other pilgrims, who say the gradual
opening of a totalitarian government bodes well. De Leon, president of
the Greater Miami Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says
Benedict's trip _ the second by a pope to the small Caribbean nation in
less than 15 years _ signals an opportunity to engage the Cubans on the
island. De Leon also went to Cuba for Pope John Paul's 1998 visit., a
trip, he says, that made an impact on the island.
"The pope is serving as a force for reconciliation," says de Leon, who
will be representing la Asociacion Cubana de la Orden de Malta, a
charitable Catholic group. "I'm very much a believer that when you open
up doors to faith and religion, miracles happen."
That's also the message Cuban-born Felipe Estevez, bishop of the Diocese
of St. Augustine, is spreading to the dozen faithful who will accompany
him to the island in March. He calls the visit a viaje de re-encuentro,
a trip of reunion. "It's time to heal the separation between families,
between Cubans," says Estevez, who has been back to Cuba as a priest
several times. "Cuba is more than a political party. It's a people, a
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Estevez says he understands why some exiles have vowed to never return
to the island as long as the Castros are in power. "There's been a lot
of oppression, a lot of hurt. But at the same time, the island doesn't
belong to the party or to one man. It belongs to the people."
For some pilgrims, the trip back is expected to be very emotional.
Cuervo, for instance, hopes to visit a cousin, whose son is now a
priest. She also hopes to stop in on the nuns from Religiosas del
Apostolado, the religious order who taught her in Cuba. "This is a
religious pilgrimage," she says. "It's an opportunity to find out how we
can be of help and to be blessed in a special way by Our Lady of Charity
and our Pope."
In 1998, she debated whether she wanted to return to the island. Wenski,
at the time not yet a bishop, gave her this piece of advice: "Let the
spirit guide you." She did and applied to go on a one-day charter
flight, but a visa mix-up kept her stranded in Miami. When she finally
went several months later _ the first time she had returned to her
homeland in more than 35 years _ she distributed rosaries and prayer cards.
"There was such a spiritual hunger," she recalls, tears welling. She
expects to see the same in March.
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Not all pilgrims going to the island are Cuban. Ralph Gazitua is is
Chilean, a devout Catholic ordained as a deacon 25 years ago.
Accompanying him will be his wife, Maria Elena "Cookie," a Cuban whose
parents came here before the revolution, and one of his two sons, Luis
Andres, a lawyer. Though they have no family on the island, they hope to
connect with the Cuban people through their faith.
"The real focus of the trip for me is to bring a spiritual message,"
Luis Andres says. "This can be the start of a cultural, political and
economic renaissance on the island."
Ralph Gazitua, has led the prison ministry for the Archdiocese of Miami
for more than two decades and sees some similarities between his work in
those institutions and efforts to spread the gospel in Cuba.
"I've seen amazing things happen through the force of prayer," says
Gazitua, who has visited the Vatican several times. "Our message as a
group of pilgrims should be clear. Through strong faith, everything is
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