Shortly before Pope Benedict XVI met with Cuban ruler Raul Castro for a courtesy visit and photo op at the opulent Palace of the Revolution Tuesday evening, Miami's Archbishop Thomas Wenski criticized the Communist island's Marxist ideologies during a Mass in the capital city's oldest cathedral.
In his homily, Wenski invoked Pope John Paul II, who visited Cuba in 1998 and called for more freedoms on the Communist island. Wenski then repeated Benedict's earlier criticism of Marxism being "a spent ideology.'' He urged Cubans to be the "protagonist of their own future,'' and closed the homily with reference to "a celebration of reconciliation.''
The Miami archbishop also told worshipers that the pope and the church in Cuba desire a political system that grants dignity to all people. His words were delivered to a full house of more than 300 mostly Cuban American pilgrims on the island for the pope's visit. They received Wenski's homily with a sustained, standing ovation.
"We pray that the Cuban people are inspired by the word of God," he said during his homily. "And that these people build a future of peace."
Some in the crowd wiped away tears. It was an emotional climax to an emotional day for many of the pilgrims, whose numbers grew to approximately 800 on Tuesday as three more planes arrived from Miami, carrying more pilgrims to join the 300 who'd arrived Monday in Santiago, the pope's first stop.
In a telephone conversation with The Miami Herald from Havana Tuesday night, Wenski was humble about his homily.
"I was just repeating the pope's message," he said. "The Mass was a special moment for us. It was a special opportunity to celebrate at the mother church."
Asked if he thought the visit was having an impact, Wenski said: "I think so, especially for Cuban Americans who have joined us here. I think they've found the experience to be a very healing one for them."
In South Florida, some exiles said they didn't think that Wenski's words would amount to much.
"Wenski is not there to say anything,'' said Ernesto Portuondo, 67, of Ft. Lauderdale who came over in 1960 as a 15 year-old. "It's the pope. He's the one with the power. He's the one the world knows."
And some said they were still waiting for the pope to meet with dissidents.
"It would be very disappointing if he doesn't,'' said Giancarlo Sopo, 29, a Coral Gables marketing executive. "It certainly would be a missed opportunity."
Sopo was one of three 20-something Cubans who set up the One Cuba Facebook page, exhorting the pope to meet with dissidents.
"The Ladies in White have been beaten, dragged through the street and humiliated in state orchestrated acts," he said. "They deserve nothing less than a few minutes to meet with the Pope."
For of the pilgrims from South Florida, it was their first trip to Cuba or, at least, their first trip home since Fidel Castro took power in 1959.
Wenski, who is leading the pilgrimage, said before the Mass that the experience has been a healing one for most of the Cuban Americans on the trip. He said he could see the difference in their tears and the stories of reconciliation that they've told him.
It's been a whirlwind trip for the group, most of whom have had little time to sleep. The pilgrims arrived Monday morning on two planes and immediately traveled to the mining town of El Cobre to visit the shrine of Our Lady of Charity, Cuba's patron saint whose 400th anniversary is being marked this year. Some broke into tears seeing the holy sculpture.
The pilgrims then traveled into Santiago along streets lined with cheering crowds who waved at their buses as they waited for the arrival of the pope, who was close behind.
Wenski said that Mass in Santiago was well-attended and heartwarming.
"The people there were more like a congregation than a crowd. They received the Holy Father with enthusiasm and joy,'' he said. "I expect the same for [Havana's Mass]. The Holy Father will give a message that is one of hope."
After Monday evening's Mass in Santiago, the pilgrims got on a plane to Havana, checking into their hotel rooms at 2 a.m.
Teri Travis, from St. Augustine, said they are tired but driven by faith and a rare opportunity to join the pilgrimage.
"I'm a quarter Cuban," Travis, 47, said. "My family packed up and moved in 1959. I've heard stories all my life. I jumped at the opportunity to come."
For those, like Andres Hernandez, it's been more challenging. The70-year-old sales specialist from Lakeland hasn't visited Cuba since he left in 1960 to study engineering in the United States. Walking along the same cobblestone streets he used to walk with his family to the Cathedral for Mass, Hernandez said he's glad he returned to see his homeland and support the church and Cuban people.
But he says he doesn't think he'll be back.
"Cuba has changed so much since when I was here," he said.
All of his family has moved to the United States or Spain, he said. He has no loved ones to visit. To return, he said he would have to come as a tourist and that would mean giving money to the government, which he says he can't support.
"They took everything my family owned," he said.
Wenski wore his archbishop's miter for the Mass in the historic cathedral. The marble and limestone cathedral on the cobblestone square was built in 1704. One of its side altars is said to have once contained the remains of Christopher Columbus.
Before the Mass, Wenski said the pilgrimage was not about politics, but prayer and reconciliation. He acknowledged the work of the church to continue to create space for "differences of opinion so that people can disagree about things, but at the same time those disagreements do not result in the divisions that have characterized Cuba in the past several decades."
Travis's mother, Mary Travis, said she's thrilled about her plans to attend Pope Benedict's planned Mass on Wednesday in Havana's Revolution Square. But she also is conflicted about the trip in a society where she feels people are still unable to speak freely.
She said she'd love the opportunity to sit with members of the Cuban community to hear their thought about the government. But she says on this trip she doesn't have the time to build the relationships needed for that kind of trust. Both she and her daughter said they longed for a more open future for Cuba.
"I can't wait for the wall to come tumbling down," Teri Travis said.
Chang reported from Miami and Ordonez from Havana. Staff writer Nancy San Martin contributed to this report from Miami.
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