In preparation for Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Cuba in the Spring, the island's President Raul Castro has granted an amnesty to nearly 3,000 prisoners. This gesture has been criticised by some as an empty gimmick, though many Cubans are overjoyed by the fact that the Pope's visit has already heralded such unexpected clemency by the usually oppressive Communist regime.
Many of those currently being released by the Cuban government are first time offenders, women, the physically and mentally ill, and those over 60 years of age - seven political prisoners were also released in the past week. Raul Castro's decision to pardon so many prisoners seems to be his way of celebrating Pope Benedict XVI's expected visit. The act itself reminds us of the Successor of St Peter's uniquely powerful ability to proclaim the Gospel: "He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release from darkness to prisoners" (cf Lk 4:18; Is 61:1).
The local Church in Cuba has also been preparing for the Papal visit, which is expected to take place sometime in March. Over the past 16 months the Caribbean island's patron saint, Our Lady of Charity of Cobre (La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre), has visited over 300 schools, prisons, hospitals and universities during an 18,000 mile pilgrimage of prayer. She was even recently venerated on Revolution Square - a place normally reserved for Communist party events. It is also estimated that over 5 million Cubans (over half the nation's population) came out to pay their tributes to the Blessed Virgin during her special tour - which was a preparation both for the Papal visit and for Our Lady of Charity's 400th anniversary in 2012.
Yesterday saw the final act in the Blessed Virgin's pilgrimage amongst her people, with a special Mass celebrated in her honour in central Havana. Needless to say, such public acts of devotion in Communist Cuba would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. The fact, therefore, that Catholics (and other Christians) can now worship relatively freely on the Caribbean island is testament both to Bl Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI's hard work in campaigning for freedom and justice on behalf of the Cuban people. It also witnesses to the courage of Cuba's local bishops, priests and laypeople who kept the faith alight during the dark days of Fidel Castro's atheistic revolution.
As mentioned above, the Pope's visit to Cuba will coincide with the 400th anniversary of the miracle of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre, when her statue was mysteriously found by a slave boy and his masters in 1612. The story of this discovery and subsequent veneration of Our Lady under this title is both a fascinating and well documented one, whilst the devotion itself has had an immensely important role to play in Cuba's own cultural and political history. As means of an introduction, then, I have prepared a short version of the story of La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre.
Our Lady of Charity saves Los Tres Juanitos
One day in 1612, two indigenous Cuban brothers, called Juan and Rodrigo de Hoyos, sailed out to the Bay of Nipe with their young 10-year-old Black slave, Juan Moreno. (These companions are now known throughout Cuba as Los Tres Juanitos, or "the three Juans"). They had set off in the hope of finding salt in Bay's salt-mines, to use as preservative for meat at their local Barajagua slaughter-house. This was an important task, as meat was an essential element in the diets of those who worked and lived in and around the area, which was then called Santiago del Prado, but which is now known as El Cobre.
As the the two men and the boy approached the Bay of Nipe, there was such a violent storm that they thought their tiny boat would sink under the waves. The slave, Juan, had a great devotion to Our Lady and always wore a medal bearing her image as a sign of his filial love for her. In their anguish the three turned to the image on Juan's medal and began to ask for Mary's protection and help. Suddenly, the storm passed and the skies cleared - Our Lady seemed to have answered their prayers.
Soon after their deliverance, these three friends saw an object floating in the sea, which seemed to be coming towards them. At first, they thought it was a bird, but as they got closer it looked like a drowned woman. At last, they discovered that it was actually a statue of the Virgin Mary. She was carrying her Son on one arm and held a golden cross in her right hand. The statue was fastened to a board inscribed with the words: "Yo Soy la Virgen de la Caridad" ("I am the Virgin of Charity"). Bizarrely, the statue was also completely dry, even though it appeared to have been floating in the water for quite some time. The Virgin was also dressed in real clothes and had real hair! Her skin colour was that of a "mulata", or a woman of mixed race. Juan Moreno formally testified to the veracity of this story as an 85-year-old man in 1687, and his evidence can still be found in the General Archives of the Indies in Seville.
Needless to say, after finding this statue the three Juans forgot all about the salt they had gone out to find and returned home to Barajagua, where they told everyone about their amazing discovery. After investigating the statue, a local government official, Don Francisco Sánchez de Moya, ordered a small chapel to be built in honour of La Virgen de la Caridad. And within a short time, most of the local people had formed a great devotion to Our Lady under this new title.
Strange things, though, began to happen soon after the new chapel had been constructed. Our Lady of Charity would often disappear, only to be found again in various locations. One night, Rodrigo de Hoyos went to visit the statue, but was horrified to discover that La Virgen had disappeared. After locking the oratory, he went searching for her all night, but to no avail. When he came back to the chapel in the morning, though, he found the statue back on the altar where she should have been in the first place. After similar events, the people of Barajagua discerned that Our Lady of Charity wasn't happy with the area where her chapel had been built and wanted to be moved to El Cobre. So the chapel was moved. It was from then on that this image of the Blessed Virgin became known as Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre (Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre).
National Shrine of Our Lady of Charity
The township of El Cobre is based in the region called Oriente. It was in this area of the island that the first settlement in Cuba was made, called Baracoa. It was here also that Cuban slaves were first set free 1868. It is also the region where the island's first act of independence against Spanish rule took place. For these reasons, La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre has become synonymous with Cuba, its culture and the people's sense of nationhood.
At the request of veterans of the Cuban War of Independence, Our Lady of Charity of Cobre was declared the patroness of Cuba by Pope Benedict XV in 1916. She was subsequently solemnly crowned during the 1936 Eucharistic Congress in Santiago de Cuba. In 1977, Pope Paul VI raised her sanctuary to the rank of a minor basilica - now called Basílica Santuario Nacional de Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre (National Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Charity). God-willing, Pope Benedict XVI will visit this shrine in March, where he will lead the people of Cuba in their celebration of Our Lady of Charity's 400th anniversary.
Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre, ¡Ruega por Nosotros!
Spero columnist Dylan Parry resides in the UK. He writes at AReluctantSinner.