On March 27, Pope Benedict visited the shrine of "Nuestra Senora de la Caridad del Cobre", patroness of Cuba, where he was greeted by the archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, and by the shrine's rector. The pontiff prayed in the church before lighting a candle and reciting the prayer of  the Virgin of Charity, the Jubilee Year ritual by which pilgrims may obtain what the Catholic Church regards as plenary indulgence for sins. He then went to the main entrance of the building from where was greeted by thousands of Cubans gathered on the square and the steps leading up to the shrine.

"Receive the affection of the Pope", Benedict XVI told them, "and carry it with you from this place, so that everyone can experience consolation and strength in faith. Let all those you meet know, whether near or far, that I have entrusted to the Mother of God the future of your country, advancing along the ways of renewal and hope, for the greater good of all Cubans. I have also prayed to the Virgin for the needs of those who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, those who are separated from their loved ones or who are undergoing times of difficulty. I have placed in her Immaculate Heart young people, that they may be authentic friends of Christ and that they may not succumb to things which bring sadness in their wake.

"Before Mary of Charity, I remember in a particular way Cubans who are the descendants of those who arrived here from Africa, like the nearby people of Haiti, where the consequences of the earthquake of two years ago are still being suffered. And I cannot forget the many country people and their families who wish to live the Gospel deeply in their homes and who offer their homes as mission centers for the celebration of Mass.

"Following the example of the Most Holy Virgin", the Pope concluded, "I encourage all the sons and daughters of this dear country to continue to build their lives on the firm rock which is Jesus Christ, to work for justice, to be servants of charity and to persevere in the midst of trials. May nothing or no one take from you your inner joy which is so characteristic of the Cuban soul".

The history of Our Lady of Charity and her shrine, the most venerated pilgrim site in Cuba, began in 1606 when three fishermen - two Amerindians and an African slave - found a wooden image of the Mother of Christ inscribed with the words "I am the Virgin of Charity" floating on the waters of Nipe Bay. The statue was taken to the mine of El Cobre where the first shrine was built in 1684. It was at the shrine that, in the year 1801, the "Manifesto for the Liberation of the Slaves of the El Cobre Mines" was proclaimed. In 1916, Pope Benedict XV proclaimed the Virgin of Charity patron of Cuba. The current shrine was inaugurated in 1927, and Pope Paul VI granted it the title of minor basilica in 1977.



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