Monday, February 27, 2012

U.S. Catholics make plans to see the pope in Cuba

Posted on Sunday, 02.26.12

U.S. Catholics make plans to see the pope in Cuba

Two S. Florida charter companies are organizing special trips for
pilgrims for Pope Benedict XVI's March 26-28 trip to Cuba.

The Archdiocese of Miami flights that will carry some 300 pilgrims to
Cuba for Pope Benedict XVI's visit next month are a study in logistics.

Organized for the archdiocese by Airline Brokers, a Coral Gables company
that is a veteran in the Cuba travel business, tandem pilgrimage flights
will leave Miami International Airport on March 26 bound for Santiago,
where the pope will celebrate a sunset Mass at Revolution Square.

But while the pilgrims are at the Mass, the two chartered planes return
to Miami — carrying all of the travelers' luggage — then return to
Santiago later. The pilgrims will once again board the planes and head
to Havana, where the pope is scheduled to meet with church officials and
celebrate a morning Mass in the Plaza of the Revolution on March 28.

Meanwhile, the planes will return to Miami empty. The aircraft later go
back to pick up the travelers after the morning Mass, the pope's last
before he returns to Rome.

Security reasons, as well as a small tarmac at the Santiago airport,
meant the multiple flights were the only option, said Vivian Mannerud,
chief executive of Airline Brokers.

With two very large aircraft carrying the pope and his entourage, plus
at least one other plane for Cuban leader Raúl Castro and other
officials, there really wasn't room for the two Miami planes to wait
around, Mannerud said.

Besides ferrying passengers to and from Cuba during an air charter
career that began in 1982, Mannerud has transported Olympic athletes,
horses for the U.S. equestrian team, relief supplies, rosaries and
Bibles when Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998. Soon that list will
include the mattresses that Benedict will sleep on in Cuba.

City Furniture, at the request of the archdiocese, is donating two
mattresses, said Keith Koenig, president of the Tamarac-based furniture
company. He and his wife Doreen also will be among the pilgrims on the
archdiocese flight.

The pilgrims are being asked to report to MIA at 4 a.m. for the Santiago
flight. When they board, they'll find water bottles emblazoned with
Benedict's image and headrest covers displaying the Vatican flag and the
seal of the Archdiocese of Miami. Since early January when the dates for
the visit were announced by the Vatican, the archdiocese and air charter
companies have been scrambling to see that everyone who wants to be in
Cuba to coincide with the pope will be able to get there. Some air
charter companies that fly from Miami to Havana or Santiago have added
extra flights to accommodate people who want to make their own plans to
see the pope.

Marazul Charters, for example, has added five more charters out of Miami
that will get pilgrims to Havana in time for the pope's Mass. Others are
just fitting in pilgrims on their regular flights. Bill Hauf, president
and owner of Island Travel & Tours, said there are still seats available
on his Tampa-Havana flight the Sunday before the pope's visit.

He had hoped to launch a new Cuba service from Baltimore-Washington
International Airport to Havana on March 21. Demand was there for the
inaugural flight, he said, but quickly fell off, prompting him to
postpone the service until October while he develops the market.

Hauf said he also planned to offer packages for the papal visit and
requested 500 hotel rooms in December. He said the only answer he got
from the Cubans was to submit hotel requests by Feb. 26. Without
confirmed hotel rooms, he said, "we decided it was too much risk. You
have to have a hotel room to match up with a flight.''


When Pope John Paul II visited Cuba, there was a whole year to organize
the trip. This time, there will be fewer than three months.

To transport pilgrims for John Paul's 1998 visit, the Archdiocese of
Miami chartered a cruise ship and 400 people signed up. But the
archdiocese canceled it the month before the pope's January trip amid
criticism from Cuban exiles, including some of the church's biggest

The archdiocese ended up chartering a plane that flew to Havana for the
pope's Mass in the Plaza of the Revolution and returned to Miami the
same day.

This time, criticism of the pope's visit has been more muted, but the
church has stuck with the air charter option.

Airline Brokers, and C & T Charters of Coral Gables, which is working
with the Archdiocese of New York, are the only U.S. companies organizing
special pilgrimage trips.

Ya'lla Tours USA had hoped to offer "A Catholic Journey to Cuba,'' but
the company, which specializes in pilgrimages to the Holy Land, pulled
the plug on its six-day trip in January after a disagreement over
pricing with the Cuban Ministry of Tourism. "They raised rates by 25
percent midway through the process,'' said Ronen Paldi, president of the
Oregon-based company.

"There had been a lot of interest,'' he said, "but people need a much
longer lead time to prepare for such pilgrimages.''

Because they are religious trips, pilgrims don't have to get permission
from the U.S. government to travel to Cuba but they do need to get visas
from the Cuban government. Many still haven't heard about their visas
but are keeping their fingers crossed.

C&T Charters has put together several Havana packages for the
Archdiocese of New York.

The all-inclusive trips include airfare, meals, hotel and transfers to
the pope's Havana Mass, as well as guided tours to churches and other
religiously significant places, said John H. Cabañas, C&T owner. An
eight-day, seven-night trip from Miami to Havana costs $2,963 (double
occupancy) and a six-day trip costs $2,562. C&T is also offering similar
religiously themed trips from New York's JFK airport.

Cabañas said he expects religious travel to Cuba to remain strong all
year because this is the 400th anniversary of the discovery of a
much-venerated statue of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre, Cuba's patron
saint, floating in the Bay of Nipe.

Nearly 1,000 people initially expressed interest in the Archdiocese of
Miami's trip, but some dropped out after Cuba raised hotel rates and the
price of the trip went up. Now, the price for a single traveler staying
at a "Grade A" hotel is just over $2,100. There are other options that
include lower-priced hotels.

The package includes some meals and transfers to the Masses where the
pope will give the homily as well as to the Mass that Miami Archbishop
Thomas Wenski, leader of the pilgrimage, will celebrate in Havana's

There was a waiting list for the Santiago-Havana trip and the
archdiocese has been busy contacting people on the list to see if they
want to take a regular charter from Miami and then hook up with the
pilgrimage group in Havana, Mannerud said.Organizing the pilgrimage is
especially meaningful for Mannerud. When she first began charter service
to Cuba, she said, "almost all the churches were closed up, boarded
up.''But relations between the Catholic Church and the state began to
thaw in the mid-1980s. By 1991, religious believers were allowed to join
the Community Party of Cuba and Caritas, a confederation of Catholic
relief organizations, that was permitted to open a branch in Cuba.
Mannerud's charter company transported many of the relief supplies
destined for the island's Catholics.

When Pope John Paul II died in 2005, Mannerud was determined to attend
his funeral even though there were virtually no seats available on
flights to Rome and she was still recovering from treatment for cancer.
She made it to the funeral. "I came back a different person,'' she said.

Even though there has been some criticism of the pope's trip and her
role in organizing the pilgrimage, Mannerud said, "I follow what my
faith tells me.''

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