By Archbishop Dionisio García Ibáñez

Archbishop Dionisio García Ibáñez of Santiago de Cuba With great joy we are preparing to receive to His Holiness Benedict XVI for a visit we have anticipated ever since we started preparing for this Jubilee Year four years ago. It was then that we invited the Holy Father to come visit our local church and our country as a pilgrim; for the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the finding of the image of Our Lady is a very significant date for all Cubans, for the faith of Cubans, for our history and also for our national identity.

We give thanks to God and to the Holy Father that he accepted the invitation to visit us in the midst of his many obligations as pastor of the universal Church. He is the successor of the apostle Peter, to whom Jesus told: You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell won't prevail against it…Shepherd my sheep. From that moment on, Peter remains the first among the apostles, the first in charity and in communion of all. The mission of the Holy Father is to be the rock that guides us and sustains us in our journey towards Christ; in this role he exercises his charity and as a caring Father he accompanies us.

Every time Benedict XVI visits a country, it is a pastoral visit to that particular church to encourage them in their faith, confirm them in hope, and encourage them to be generous in charity. And this is the fundamental meaning of his upcoming visit to Cuba. In this case, for the Jubilee Year, he comes as Pilgrim of Charity. The theme of charity is central. God is love, God is charity, and the pope comes to confirm us in the love of the Father and to assure us that the love of God is with us always.

For us Cubans, this word has a great and beautiful meaning because it is the name of our Mother and Patroness. Our Lady of Charity, as an image, is symbol of the "cubanía" (that which pertains to all things Cuban) that unites all Cubans, believers and unbelievers alike; but charity, love, is the only virtue that can make possible that all Cubans be brothers and sisters to one another. The opposite of charity is hate; hate doesn't build anything, division doesn't build anything. The devil is the father of lies and disunion, but charity is what unites us, and it always comes from God. That's why the Holy Father comes to visit.

He is also the head of a very small state, the Vatican, and that allows him to establish one-on-one relationships with other states. So, when the Holy Father visits the local church, in this case the Cuban church, it is also because the Cuban State has invited him. It is a pastoral visit, but in the eyes of the government and the people, it also is the visit of a Head of State.

However, we cannot miss that the primary meaning of the visit is pastoral. That is how we have to look at it, both the Government and ourselves as pastors as well as the members of the Church.

This is why we are preparing. Everyone can see streets are being worked on and houses painted. The archdiocesan building is also getting ready, for he will come to rest for a few hours here; we have hurried to finish the house in El Cobre, which will be for elderly priests. It is logical. When we receive a visit we try to make them comfortable and try to make sure things are beautiful. But for this visit the most important thing is the spiritual preparation.

It is not just a question of welcoming the Holy Father with unction and joy, and of participating in the Mass, but of living a profound spiritual renovation. Thank God this visit coincides with the season of Lent, a time in which we are invited to internal conversion, to a desire to change the heart; but we are also given some practical tasks: we hear about prayer, fasting and mercy, about helping others.

The Cuban church has chosen this time of Lent, Holy Week and Easter to launch a campaign in which we invite the Cuban people to solidarity, to live charity, to be compassionate… knowing that every man and woman are my brother and sister, because they are sons and daughters of God; and that I can never be indifferent in the face of the suffering of others. The visit of the Holy Father is, therefore, an added grace.

I invite you and I so that we may take advantage of this time. The readings of Ash Wednesday reminded us that this is the day that the Lord has made, a time of mercy. This is the time of the Lord, let's make the most of it.

Archbishop García Ibáñez is the Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba and president of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba