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CUBA-EVENTS Feb-27-2012 (810 words) With map posted Feb. 14 and photos posted Feb. 16, 23 and 27. xxxi

Paint, plaster and printed programs: Cubans prepare for Pope Benedict

A Cuban boy shows his small replica of Our Lady of Charity at the shrine dedicated to Cuba's patroness in El Cobre. (CNS/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

EL COBRE, Cuba (CNS) -- The Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, home to the 400-year-old statue of Cuba's patroness, has always been an impressive sight: a towering pale yellow basilica perched in the picturesque foothills of the Sierra Maestra.

It's where Pope Benedict XVI will visit March 27, making him the most prominent of tens of thousands of pilgrims expected to make the trek to the shrine of La Caridad, as the image is known, in this 400th anniversary year.

He also will celebrate open-air Masses in Havana and Santiago de Cuba and meet with government and church leaders. But his main reason for coming, according to the Cuban bishops' conference, is as a pilgrim of La Caridad. The Mass in Santiago also will be dedicated to La Caridad.

In the past three years, the shrine at El Cobre has undergone a gradual transformation in anticipation of the 400th anniversary. Peeling plaster has been repaired; new paint brightens walls; new dormitory rooms for pilgrims have been added and the existing ones updated. A chapel area has been remodeled for grateful and hopeful people to leave medallions and other remembrances for their petitions.

Funding for the repairs and upgrades came from across Cuba and from donors around the world. Brooklyn Auxiliary Bishop Octavio Cisneros, a Cuba native, and Santiago de Cuba Archbishop Dionisio Garcia Ibanez toured the United States a year ago, encouraging people to visit Cuba as pilgrims and raising money to make it all possible.

Glass cases hold some of the more poignant and well-known tributes: sports paraphernalia, letters, and an article about writer Ernest Hemingway's gift of his Pulitzer Prize -- the gold medallion itself is locked away. A marble tabletop nearby holds candles lit by those offering their prayers

As worshippers inside observed World Day of the Sick Feb. 11, Vatican security agents toured the property and workers scrambled to finish turning a dirt parking lot behind the church into a paved, garden courtyard. A work schedule with the Sept. 8 feast of La Caridad as its goal got pushed up by six months in December when the pope's visit was announced.

Just down the hill from the dormitory building is the new residence at which local officials say Pope Benedict will be the first overnight guest. The residence was intended as a home for retired Archbishop Pedro Meurice Estiu of Santiago, who died last July before the home was completed.

The pope's time at the sanctuary of El Cobre will be private and is scheduled for just one hour. Father Eugenio Castellanos, rector of the shrine, said people will be welcome on the grounds during the pope's visit, but they will not be allowed inside the church. He said arrangements will be made so people outside can hear whatever the pope may say and view his visit on television screens.

Mass in Santiago de Cuba March 26 will be held in Antonio Maceo Revolution Square, scene of the 1998 Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II. Archdiocesan organizers expect up to half a million people to come from across eastern Cuba, throughout the Caribbean and the United States.

The Cuban government announced that people who wish to attend the Masses will be able to take the time off work with pay. Church officials in Santiago and Havana said the government had not yet been decided whether the days would be declared public holidays to help with traffic flow.

The Mass in Santiago will be in the late afternoon, with participants expected to gather throughout the day. Tens of thousands of people are expected to line Pope Benedict's route between El Cobre and Santiago, as well as the streets between Havana's Jose Marti International Airport and his first stop in the capitol, where he will meet with the bishops of Cuba and civil authorities.

The March 28 Mass in Havana will be in Revolution Square, also the same location where Pope John Paul celebrated Mass.

Msgr. Jose Felix Perez Riera, executive secretary of the Cuban bishops' conference, told Catholic News Service that the church is printing 300,000 copies of the program for the Havana Mass but that, as of early February, planners could only guess at how many people might attend. In 1998, an estimated 150,000 people attended the papal Mass in Havana.

In 1998, the four Masses celebrated by the pope were fairly evenly spaced across the island, in Havana, Santa Clara, Camaguey and Santiago de Cuba, Msgr. Perez noted. The two liturgies planned for Pope Benedict's visit are at opposite ends of the country, making for bus rides of four to five hours or more for many people who might want to participate.

Msgr. Perez said he had been quoted a price of $1.25 per mile per person for hiring buses, a prohibitive price in a country where the average monthly salary is about $20.


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