Feature News

One in charity

Cubans from inside and outside the island coming together under Our Lady's mantle

Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Ana Rodriguez-Soto - Florida Catholic

Cuban bishops serving on the island and in the U.S. celebrate Mass together at the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity; from left, Bishop Arturo Gonzalez of Santa Clara; Bishop Agustin Roman of Miami; and Bishop Felipe Estevez of St. Augustine.

Justo Luis Rodriguez of the Diocese of Pinar del Rio in Cuba carries the processional cross into the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity.
MIAMI — “La caridad nos une” — charity unites us — is becoming more than a slogan for Cubans on and off the island. It is becoming a reality.

The slogan was adopted by Cuba’s bishops in preparation for the 400th anniversary in 2012 of the discovery of the image of Our Lady of Charity floating off the Bay of Nipe.

It is now being lived on the island, as the image of Cuba’s patroness makes its way through every town and city in the officially atheist nation, drawing crowds at every stop.

It is also being lived outside the island, where Cuban priests and their exiled counterparts have been meeting every year since 1997. In 2000, these Church-to-Church “encuentros” grew to include laity and members of religious orders. They come together to share their faith experiences and re-commit themselves to the work of evangelization, each group conscious that it has to do so from within its own reality.

“We learn so much from these people,” said Rosario Bergouignan, a Miami Cuban who has been taking part in the encuentros since 2000. “The Church in Cuba does not talk about pain, but about hope. And the pilgrimage of Our Lady of Charity has helped a lot with that. It has given hope to the people.”

Bergouignan was among a group of 18 clergy and laity from South Florida who met with 12 of their counterparts from the island at the most recent encuentro, held in Miami in mid-July.

Father Juan Sosa, pastor of St. Joseph Parish on Miami Beach, preaches the homily during the July 14 Mass.
On July 14, the group gathered for Mass under the mantle — both literal and figurative — of Our Lady of Charity, as the bayside shrine that bears her name is an architectural replica of the mantle that characterizes her image.

This year, 2011, is significant in the history of the Cuban diaspora: It marks the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the image of Our Lady of Charity in Miami, an image smuggled out of Cuba through the Panamanian embassy that arrived just in time for the first local celebration of her feast day, Sept. 8, 1961.

This September also marks the 50th anniversary of the expulsion at gunpoint of 131 Cuban priests and religious from the island. They were put on a ship called Covadonga that was headed for Spain. Among them was a then newly-ordained Agustín Román, now the retired auxiliary bishop of Miami.

In yet another sign of unity, for the first time this year the encuentro coincided with the 37th annual meeting of the group that began on the Covadonga — the Fraternity of Clergy and Religious of the Diaspora.

“Who can doubt that God is calling all of us, by means of (Mary’s) image, to lives transformed by the redeeming embrace of her son, whatever our situations might be,” said Father Juan Sosa, pastor of St. Joseph Parish on Miami Beach, during his homily at the July 14 Mass.

He himself was exiled from Cuba as a teenager and is now a participant in both the fraternity and the encuentros.

He noted that the highest ranking prelate on the Covadonga, Havana Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo Boza Masvidal, did not view the expulsion “as failure or rejection.” Instead, he saw it “as a new opportunity to respond to God’s call.”

“The Cuban clergy and religious would leave the island to preach the Gospel and spread the faith in other parts of the world. On the island, simultaneously, the Church of those years would become missionary as well, witness to a new reality that stunted its growth but never impeded its witness of life and faith,” Father Sosa said.

That reality of a living Church, acting to the extent of its possibilities in the midst of a totalitarian regime, is the one that the people of Cuba have been sharing with their exiled counterparts for more than a decade now. At first, the encuentros were not publicized much. But participants have grown bolder in recent years, inviting the press to some of their Masses.

This year, participants also spread out to four archdiocesan parishes — Our Lady of the Lakes, St. Agatha, St. Joseph and San Lázaro — to celebrate a Mass followed by a gathering with local parishioners. Some were also traveling to Atlanta, St. Augustine and Washington, D.C., to meet with Cuban exiles living there.

“We want them to know that Our Lady of Charity, on this 400th anniversary of her discovery, is performing the miracle of uniting the Cuban people,” said Msgr. Arnaldo Aldana of the Diocese of Holguín. “We want this to be a year of reconciliation for all Cubans, who are a single people.”

“What matters is that we be more united,” said Justo Luis Rodriguez of the Diocese of Pinar del Rio. “We have suffered on both sides. But we also have many things to rejoice over on both sides.”

He said the pilgrimage of Our Lady of Charity throughout the island “has been tremendous. Those who have left the island have found the Virgin to be a source of support for their lives. And there are many over there (in Cuba) who had forgotten about her, and now they are once again receiving her in their homes. I believe that is a sign from God that he wants something from us, from those of us there and those of us here, as a people.”

He added that the encuentros have been very productive as well.

“Most Cubans want to go the way of unity, of together seeking better pathways for our reality as a nation, as a people,” Rodriguez said. “There are always those who seek something else but I don’t believe, here or there, they are the majority.”

Cuban priests and bishops working on the island and in the U.S. pose for a picture inside the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity after Mass.

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