CNS PHOTO | NANCY PHELAN WIECHEC
The image of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre can be seen across Cuba at home altars, on the dashboards of taxis and on prayer cards.
EL COBRE, CUBA - Entrusting people to Mary's maternal care is a normal Catholic practice, but when Pope Benedict prayed that Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre would wrap her golden mantle around the people of Cuba, it was particularly poignant.
For 400 years, Cubans - believers and nonbelievers alike - have brought their sorrows and joys before the little statue of Mary. Even Cuba's communist rulers have claimed her as a cultural icon of the Cuban struggle for freedom and equality.
When Pope Benedict visited the Virgin's shrine March 27, he joined the thousands of pilgrims marking the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the statue. He echoed their prayers for a future marked by less poverty and greater freedom.
"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," he said.
With only Cuban bishops and priests, his Vatican entourage and a choir present inside the shrine of La Caridad, as the image is known, Pope Benedict first knelt in prayer before the Eucharist. Then he stood and recited the special prayer that the Cuban bishops composed for the fourth-centenary celebrations.
He went up to the statue, lit a candle and stood in silent prayer for several minutes while a choir sang the Salve Regina, or Hail, Holy Queen.
Hundreds of pilgrims and visitors waited outside for a glimpse of the pope and a few words from him.
Leaving the shrine, the pope stood on the steps and told the crowd that the Virgin's "presence in this town of El Cobre is a gift of heaven for all Cubans."
On an island where families have been divided by exile, emigration and imprisonment, the pope assured the people that while inside he prayed to Mary "for the needs of all who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, for those who are separated from their loved ones or who are undergoing times of difficulty."
He said he prayed for Cuba's young people that "they may be authentic friends of Christ and not succumb to things which bring sadness in their wake."
Pope Benedict prayed for families who live their faith and transmit it to their children and, especially, for the families "who offer their homes as mission centres for the celebration of Mass." Many Cuban families host the Mass in their homes due to government restrictions on the building of new churches as well as a severe shortage of priests.
The pope told the people to follow Mary's example and 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," he said.