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Benedict, the Pilgrim of Charity

Entre Amigos-Opinion/Commentary 
By Mar Muñoz-Visoso

January 18, 2012

Cuban Catholics have just begun a Jubilee Year to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the finding of a statue of Our Lady of Charity (La Caridad) floating atop a small piece of wood on the Bay of Nipe, in the northeastern coast of the island. The Jubilee was preceded by a year-long pilgrimage of la Virgen Mambisa—as she is also popularly known— throughout the country and through “the hearts of the Cuban people,” in the words of the Cuban bishops.

La Caridad del Cobre, named after the mining town where her sanctuary is located, has come out to meet the Cuban people wherever they are, and they in turn have responded with joy and devotion. At her path, many have lost the fear to openly express their Catholic identity and beliefs. In countless others, who grew up, or old, in Cuba without the benefit of a formal Catholic religious education, the pilgrimage of La Caridad has awakened a real curiosity about her message of faith, love and reconciliation.

It is thus fitting, and it has brought the Cuban faithful great joy and encouragement, that the pope who has made charity/love a key theme of his pontificate has decided to join them as a “Pilgrim of Charity.” It is also meaningful because it was a predecessor, Benedict XV, who in 1916 acceded to a request from the veterans of the wars of independence to name la Caridad del Cobre as the Patron Saint of Cuba. Now, another Pope Benedict comes to pay his respects and commend the Cuban brethren to her maternal protection.

According to Monsignor José F. Pérez, of the Cuban bishops’ conference, the theme for the pope’s apostolic journey to Cuba, “Pilgrim of Charity,” has a dual meaning. First, it refers to the name of the Blessed Mother, whose anniversary is being celebrated. Secondly, it is relative to the theological virtue of charity, after which the Patroness of Cuba is named, and which the bishops of Cuba wish to promote and reflect on during the Marian Jubilee Year.

Pope Benedict, who opened his pontificate with an encyclical letter on God’s love (Deus caritas est), and has revisited the theme on no few occasions, particularly with his third encyclical, “Charity in truth” (Caritas in veritate), will again have a privileged occasion topromote among the Cuban people, and anyone listening, that virtue which the Apostle Paul says it excels above all others, and the only one that abides: love.

Cuban exiles have reacted with mixed emotions to the announcement. On one hand, La Caridad is the mother of all Cubans, wherever they are, and devotion on this shore is also big. They are happy the pope will honor her and join Cubans in their jubilee. On the other hand, their hopes for sweeping political changes in Cuba after John Paul II’s visit in 1998 did not, in their view, materialize, and they see Benedict’s visit with different expectations.

Though life in Cuba is in fact changing, the Vatican has warned Cubans not to place false hope in Benedict’s visit. He goes to Cuba as a pilgrim and his only aim is to accompany the Cuban brethren and “confirm them in the faith.” As head of the Vatican state, the pope will visit briefly with President Raúl Castro, as he does on every visit to a country.

The Archdiocese of Miami has announced a pilgrimage to the island, which anyone can join. Thanks to recently eased restrictions by the U.S. Administration, one doesn’t need to be Cuban or related to a Cuban national to visit the island for religious purposes.

“We travel in solidarity with the Church in Cuba—and in response to their invitation to share with them this historic event,” said Archbishop Thomas Wenski during the announcement. “The Pope travels to Cuba as a pilgrim of charity. We go to Cuba in the same spirit.”

Like Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, only the Blessed Mother’s maternal intercession can bring about what the Cuban bishops have called a new “springtime of faith” in the island nation.

The image of La Caridad del Cobre is intimately united to the history of Cuba, and it will continue to be so in the future. May the brethren in Cuba, under her protection, grow in faith and love accompanied by the Vicar of Christ. May they, inside or outside of Cuba, be reconciled to one another. And may Christians hungry for spirituality and religious freedom contribute abundantly to reshape the future of Cuba.


Mar Muñoz-Visoso is assistant director of media relations at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

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