MIAMI — Beyond strengthening the Catholic faith in Cuba, Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski said Monday that he hopes Pope Benedict XVI's trip to Cuba in March will offer a message of reconciliation to Cubans.
"I hope the pope will promote the idea of reconciliation. ... I'm talking about the reconciliation of people," Wenski said, noting the frustration and distrust that sometimes exists among Cubans on the island, and the separation of those in exile.
After visiting Mexico, the pope will fly to Santiago, Cuba, on March 26 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin de Caridad de Cobre (Our Lady of Charity) — Cuba's patron saint. He also plans to visit the virgin's shrine in the small town of El Cobre, and then go to Havana, where he will take part in a Mass in the Plaza of the Revolution — the same square where hundreds of thousands of people heard Pope John Paul II celebrate Mass in 1998.
Benedict, Wenski said, will visit Cuba "to affirm the faith of the church and also perhaps to open up Cuban society to the world. Pope Benedict has said on many occasions that a world without God is a world without hope; it's a world without a future."
Wenski noted the frustration often expressed by Cuba's young people, and said the pople would not only be "inviting people to open themselves up to God and to the value faith can bring" but also "inviting people to rediscover a future by rediscovering hope."
While the visit is a spiritual event, Wenski said it — like John Paul's trip to Cuba — could have broader implications for Cuban society.
Wenski and Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega have used the phrase "a springtime of faith" that echoes the phrase "Arab spring," a term used to describe the pro-democracy uprisings sweeping the Arab world.
"When the cardinal talks about a springtime of faith, was that an accidental choice of words?" Wenski asked during a visit to The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald.
In any future political transition in Cuba, he said, "what we should all be looking for is a soft landing ... not chaos."
In the early days of the Cuban revolution, the Catholic Church was marginalized, Catholic schools were closed, priests and nuns sent into exile and the open practice of the faith was discouraged.
But in recent years, the Catholic Church has gained space in Cuban society. In 2010 and 2011, Ortega was a key figure in negotiating the release of political prisoners with President Raul Castro, and last month, as a humanitarian gesture, Castro released 2,900 inmates, including a small number of political prisoners, from Cuban jails.
Asked if the recent release was linked to the pope's upcoming visit, Wenski said he had no direct knowledge that it was, but added, "There could be some connection to it. The fact they were released in time for Christmas probably says something." It also, he said, could be a response to serious prison crowding.
For more than a year, "La Mambisa," a replica of the statue of Our Lady of Charity that three Cuban fishermen found floating in the Bay of Nipe in 1612, has toured the island in processions leading up to the 400th anniversary year than began Saturday. The statue has drawn large crowds and the response has been interpreted as a spiritual revival.
On its website, the Miami Archdiocese also noted that when the image of the virgin was honored at a cultural event last week at the Plaza of the Cathedral, a number of high-level Cuban officials, including Cuban Vice President Esteban Lazo, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, city historian Eusebio Leal, and Caridad Diego, head of the Religious Affairs Bureau of the Communist Party Central Committee, were present. During his visit, the pope will be received by Raul Castro.
Because so many Catholics in South Florida have roots in Cuba, Wenski said the Archdiocese of Miami is "almost like another archdiocese of Cuba" and he expects "several hundred" pilgrims from South Florida to support and participate in the pope's visit. The archdiocese is in the process of organizing the pilgrimage and expects to release details on how local Catholics can take part in the next seven to 10 days.
Juan Dominguez, rector of Ermita de la Caridad, the Our Lady of Charity shrine in Coconut Grove, Fla., said that in recent weeks many parishioners have come to the sanctuary with questions about the trip to Cuba.
"The archdiocese is responding to the desire of many Catholics," Rumin said. "In this year of Jubilee, the official slogan has been "Charity unites us."
El Nuevo Herald staff writer Daniel Shoer Roth contributed to this report.