Pope’s trip to Cuba will focus on families, the young and strengthening the church

The front view of the structure being readied for a papal mass during Pope Francis' Sept. 19-22 visit to Cuba. (Mimi Whitefield/Miami Herald/TNS)
The front view of the structure being readied for a papal mass during Pope Francis' Sept. 19-22 visit to Cuba. (Mimi Whitefield/Miami Herald/TNS) TNS

In the shadow of a giant image of Argentine Che Guevara, workmen are in the final stages of building the altar where Argentina-born Pope Francis will celebrate Mass in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolucion during his four-day visit to Cuba next month.

Tens of thousands of Cubans are expected to attend three Masses -- in Havana, Holguin and El Cobre, which is outside Santiago -- during the pope’s visit. About 1,000 pilgrims from abroad also are expected in Cuba.

It falls to Rolando Suarez, lawyer for the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops, to coordinate the logistics for international pilgrims and to organize buses and other transportataion for Cubans from around the country who want to attend the Masses and take part in other activities during the pope’s visit.

The church estimates that 32,000 Cubans from Sancti Spiritus to Pinar del Rio will attend the Mass in Havana with 16,000 nuns, priests and seminarians and tens of thousands from Havana, Suarez said. The Mass in Holguin is expected to attract 34,000 from Ciego de Avila to Guantanamo, not counting residents of the provincial capital.

In El Cobre, an old copper mining town, Mass will be celebrated in the minor basilica of the National Sanctuary of Our Lady of Charity del Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint. About 1,000 people -- representing each Cuban province -- are expected to be seated inside the basilica, with 2,000 more outside.

Afterward, Francis plans a “family encounter” with 30 people from each of Cuba’s provinces at Santiago’s Cathedral of Our Lady of Assumption before leaving Cuba to continue his trip to Washington -- where he will meet with President Barack Obama at the White House and address a joint session of Congress -- New York and Philadelphia.

Francis had a role in encouraging a rapprochement between the two formerly hostile neighbors. The two countries re-established diplomatic relations and opened respective embassies on July 20 for the first time in more than 50 years.

Last September, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, hand-delivered a letter from Francis to the White House offering to help however he could in the secret negotiations between the two countries. Francis, who sent a personal letter to Cuban President Raul Castro, offered the Vatican as one of the meeting places for the talks.

The pope impressed the leaders. Obama has called him “the real deal,” and Castro has said he will be at all three Masses in Cuba and might even consider a return to the Catholic Church.

Castro will get his chance when Francis delivers the homily at the 9 a.m. Mass on Sept. 20 in the Plaza de la Revolucion. Presiding over the 11-acre square are huge representations of Camilo Cienfuegos, a revolutionary hero who died mysteriously in October 1959, and Che Guevara, a revolutionary icon.

The Jose Marti Monument also makes the plaza a must-see for many visitors to Havana.

“The most important thing is what the pope will say,” Suarez said. “The messages will be in the homilies.”

Before the Mass, the pope wants to shake hands with the people. “We’re asking for that but we will have to wait to see what security says,” Suarez said

With less than a month to go, evidence of the pope’s impending arrival can be seen in the work at the plaza and the posters reading “Bienvenido (welcome) Francisco” that have begun to pop up around Cuba.

Getting ready is a challenge because the Vatican announced only in late April that Francis would be visiting Cuba. When Pope Benedict XVI visited, there was a year to get ready.

If the number of international pilgrims coming to Cuba seems low, it’s probably because Latin Americans have already had a chance to see Francis this year during his eight-day trip to Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay in June, and because of his upcoming U.S. trip.

The pope is expected to arrive at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport at 4:05 p.m. Sept. 19 and give a speech before leaving in an open car that will take him through some heavily populated areas of the city. A children’s choir will greet him at the Nunciatura Apostolic, where he’ll spend the night.

After the Mass Sunday, he has a private lunch, a 4 p.m. meeting with Castro, vespers with priests, nuns and seminarians at Havana’s Cathedral and a greeting and remarks to 5,000 young people at the Father Felix Varela Cultural Center in the old San Carlos and San Ambrosio seminary.

Among the center’s academic offerings is a master’s degree in business administration to support the economic changes in Cuba that have allowed people to go into business for themselves.

It’s unclear whether the pope will meet with dissidents as they have requested. Suarez said he doesn’t think he will. “This is a pastoral visit,” he said.

The next day, Francis will deliver the homily at a Mass celebrated in Holguin’s Revolution Square before heading to Santiago in the late evening where he’ll spend most of his time in El Cobre before departing for Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington at 12:30 p.m. Sept. 22.