Group to visit shrine
In the first U.S. pilgrimage of its kind since Cuban President Fidel Castro came to power, a group of Catholics from Miami and New York expect to travel to Santiago de Cuba next month to celebrate the feast day for Our Lady of Charity, the beloved Cuban national patroness.
While thousands of Cuban exiles in South Florida venerate Our Lady of Charity on Sept. 8 at the annual Mass at the Hialeah Racetrack, at least 20 Catholics from Miami and New York will be in Santiago de Cuba for a pilgrimage inspired by Pope John Paul II's historic visit to the island.
``We want to express, by our visit to the national shrine, our Marian faith and our solidarity with the Cuban church and people,'' said Mario Paredes, executive director of the Northeast Hispanic Catholic Center in New York City, which is sponsoring the pilgrimage. ``In spite of the disagreement between our governments, we are determined to do everything possible to signal that to the world and to the Cuban people.''
Our Lady of Charity -- the Cuban image of the Virgin Mary -- is a figure of great religious and patriotic significance. Her feast day is the most important annual celebration for the Cuban diaspora worldwide.
Fittingly, the unprecedented U.S. pilgrimage is motivated by hopes for a religious reconciliation between Cubans here and on the island -- but shaped by volatile Cuban politics.
In January, critics blocked a cruise the Archdiocese of Miami had planned to take pilgrims to see the Pope in Cuba. Opponents argued that American travel to the island lines Castro's pockets and enhances his image.
South Florida organizers of the Sept. 6-10 pilgrimage kept their plans quiet, fearful of drawing fire from those exiles in Miami who oppose anyone returning to Cuba as long as Castro is in power.
``I didn't want any threats,'' said Marivi Prado, who owns a Miami marketing firm and volunteered to help sign up South Floridians for the pilgrimage next month to Santiago de Cuba. ``We don't want polemics. It's strictly a spiritual journey.''
Only about 20 people have bought tickets for the pilgrimage, although organizers would like to attract at least 100. New York Cardinal John O'Connor had planned to lead the pilgrimage, but is no longer expected to accompany the group.
The Cuban government initially signaled it might give a special blanket pilgrims' visa to the group, but hasn't yet.
``It comes down to this: If the Cuban government wants us to go, they will make all the provisions,'' Paredes said. ``If they don't want us to go, they will give us all kinds of runaround. We are prepared for it.''
Miami Auxiliary Bishop Agustin Roman, spiritual leader of Cuban exiles in South Florida, said he supports this pilgrimage even though he has vowed never to return to Cuba while Castro rules.
``They will go to pray with these people who are suffering. I think that is OK,'' Roman said. ``A pilgrimage is a good thing.''
The pilgrimage to Our Lady of Charity's national shrine in Cuba is especially fitting this year, the 100th anniversary of Cuban freedom fighters winning independence from Spain in 1898, Roman said.
Our Lady of Charity became the official patroness of Cuba after soldiers who had helped win Cuba's independence -- and had credited the Virgin's miraculous intervention -- petitioned the Vatican on her behalf.
On Our Lady of Charity's feast day, Cubans travel from all over the island to her national shrine to celebrate Masses and sing patriotic songs.
Across the water, South Florida exiles do the same while offering to the Virgin their hopes and prayers for a Cuba free of communism.
Margarita Cuervo, of Kendall, bought a ticket for the pilgrimage to Santiago de Cuba because she wants to help bridge that gap.
``The Pope has said that Cuba has to open itself to the world and the world has to open itself to Cuba, and that's what I'm doing,'' said Cuervo, a math professor at Miami-Dade Community College.
``I don't know when Cuba will be free, and we can celebrate this feast day in freedom,'' she said. ``But the Spirit is telling me to go, be there, pray with your people. You have to be decisive and have the courage to do what you think the Spirit is telling you to do. It's not easy.''
Copyright © 1998 The Miami