Government, Communist Party and Catholic Church authorities attended the farewell event of the pilgrimage of the statue of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, patroness of Cuba, at a Mass attended by some 3,000 people in the Havana thoroughfare of Avenida del Puerto.
Attending the religious ceremony Friday were Vice President Esteban Lazo, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and the head of the ruling Communist Party’s office of religious affairs, Caridad Diego, together with other state officials.
Cardinal Jaime Ortega, archbishop of Havana, officiated the Mass, also attended by the president of the Cuban Catholic Bishops Conference, Dionisio Garcia, archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, and among the guests, the archbishop of Miami, Thomas Wenski.
In his sermon, Cardinal Ortega stressed that the pilgrimage of Our Lady of Charity had ended “brilliantly” in Havana, and also mentioned the “spiritual significance” that this unprecedented religious event had for the millions of Cubans who followed the statue’s journey around the island.
“Our people have thanked us, the men of the church, not because we find magic solutions to economic or social problems, but for giving them the chance to wholly find themselves once more,” the prelate said.
The cardinal said that this gratitude “arises from the people’s instinctive understanding that the church has struggled through the years to fulfill that duty, to exercise that right, and has achieved it progressively without ever ceasing in its efforts.”
“For that reason I also want to communicate to the highest authorities of the nation, our acknowledgment that they have respected that right and made it easier to fulfill that duty,” he said.
In Cuba, the pilgrimage has been seen as an expression of the current good relations between the Catholic Church and the government following the dialogue initiated in 2010 by Cardinal Ortega and President Raul Castro.
The Cuban government cooperated with the security arrangements and itinerary of the pilgrimage, and last week pardoned more than 2,900 prisoners for humanitarian reasons that took into account the upcoming visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the island and the 2012 Jubilee Year in Cuba for the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the figure of Our Lady of Charity, as Castro himself said.
The procession of Our Lady of Charity marked the 400th year since her statue was found and covered a route of some 30,000 kilometers (19,000 miles) in 17 months since Aug. 8, 2010, when it departed from the sanctuary in the town of El Cobre in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba.
It has been a pilgrimage without precedent in the years following the victory of the 1959 revolution, and echoed another with the same statue in 1951-1952 celebrating the 50 years of the nation’s independence.
During the 2010-2011 procession, the statue of Our Lady was carried to churches, schools, hospitals, prisons and public squares, including the iconic Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana, drawing people in their thousands as it passed through cities and towns.
Legend has it that the statue of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre appeared in 1612 to three fishermen in a boat on Nipe Bay at the eastern end of the island.
She was declared patroness of Cuba on May 10, 1916 and was personally crowned by Pope John Paul II on Jan. 24, 1998, on his visit to the island.
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