In his first stop of a six-day visit to Cuba, Cardinal Dolan walked into the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in the town of El Cobre, likely the most popular sacred space in Cuba, joining hundreds of citizens and tourists of this island nation who crowd in to visit a statue of the Madonna.
The cardinal walked in as any other pilgrim toward the statue inside the shrine. Archbishop Dionisio Garcia Ibanez of Santiago, the city closest to the shrine, had told him earlier to walk in “discreetly,” though smiling and saying, “if that’s possible,” because with his tall frame, Cardinal Dolan towered above everyone, except the figure of the tiny Madonna perched high above the altar.
In his role as a high-ranking U.S. Church leader visiting during a time of choppy political waters in his country toward Cuba, the cardinal’s homily offered the only things he could to Catholics gathered for Mass: his presence, his gratitude, solidarity as a Christian and trust that God, along with Jesus and Mary, is with them.
“We only arrived yesterday in Cuba and this is our first stop—on purpose—because we are one family in the Church...When we came to Cuba we wanted to come to the house of our Mother, Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, and we’re grateful to God we are here,” he said in a homily interpreted into Spanish by Auxiliary Bishop Octavio Cisneros of Brooklyn, though the cardinal celebrated the rest of the Mass in Spanish.
He received applause after expressing his thanks to God for being able to visit the shrine, calling it a “dream.” Archbishop Garcia Ibanez said you could tell from the faces in the crowd that many Cubans present had received with gratitude his message and “that says a lot,” he said.
The journey toward showing solidarity with Cubans has become harder for others to make, particularly Americans, after the Trump administration sought to make it more difficult to travel to the island, closing some paths that had opened under President Barack Obama.
“Yesterday was a long day, a long difficult journey. It was difficult for us, but every trip, every journey is difficult, especially the journey of life,” Cardinal Dolan told the crowd, speaking of his journey from the U.S. to El Cobre, which took almost a full day when weeks ago, it would have taken hours.
Direct flights to Santiago, the closest city to the shrine with an airport, have come to a halt as they did for other Cuban cities except Havana. A serious oil shortage heightened by U.S. sanctions has led to a scarcity of flights inside the island, forcing the cardinal to board the Feb. 7 evening leg to Santiago or risk not going at all.
Even in that difficulty, Cardinal Dolan followed in the steps of Cubans going to great lengths to visit the statue of the Madonna at the shrine.
He assured them, without referencing the island’s woes, that in any difficulty, God always is present.
“It’s a difficult moment, and that’s precisely when you see the church so full,” Archbishop Garcia Ibanez said in a Feb. 8 interview with Catholic News Service. “With so many difficulties—transportation, the economy—you realize the devotion of the people is still there. Many make the sacrifice.”
Archbishop Garcia Ibanez said he saw the cardinal’s visit as a “special symbol of communion” and solidarity with Cubans, and a commitment to unity in difficult times.
“There can be many differences, but the Church is one, the belief in God is one and there’s only one pastor, therefore one community,” Archbishop Garcia Ibanez told CNS.
The Cuban bishops on the way to and from El Cobre showed up to accompany him in any way they could to show that sense of community.
“In the Church, we feel like brothers and sisters. There are many other aspects of life, political, ideological, where there may be many differences but those differences must be resolved through understanding and comprehension by various parties,” Archbishop Garcia Ibanez said.
In Havana, Cardinal Juan Garcia Rodriguez, the archbishop of Havana, and other officials from the archdiocese remained with Cardinal Dolan in his six-hour wait at the airport, which also involved government officials.
When he finally arrived in Santiago at about 1:30 a.m. (local time) Feb. 8, the Santiago archbishop and an entourage from his diocese were present to welcome him. The government provided for the cardinal a patrol car escort on his way to his resting quarters at a retreat house near the shrine.
Because of the difficulty in flights from Santiago to Havana, the cardinal headed back to the island’s capital—a full day’s drive—by car, making a stop in Camaguey where he was welcomed by Archbishop Wilfredo Pino Estevez before heading back to Havana.
Though most of the cardinal’s visits are with the country’s prelates and to sites important to the Church, Cardinal Dolan is scheduled to meet before he leaves with Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez, who extended an invitation to the cardinal to visit the island when the two met in New York.