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 CNS Story:

WYD-CUBANS Jul-16-2013 (610 words) xxxi

Cuban young people leave for World Youth Day 'with great hope'

By Ezra Fieser
Catholic News Service

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (CNS) -- At the age of 24, Meylan Legorburo had never left Cuba and never expected she would.

Yet, on July 15, the social researcher and 47 other young Cubans were on their way to Jose Marti International Airport outside of Havana to board a flight for Brazil, where they planned to take part in World Youth Day.

The international celebration, which begins in Rio de Janeiro July 23, is a monumental moment for young Catholics. This year's event, which 2.5 million people are expected to attend, will also mark Pope Francis' first international trip.

But the event is especially sweet for the 55-member Cuban delegation, which includes four priests, Bishop Alvaro Beyra Luarca of Bayamo, two nuns and 48 young Catholics.

Strained church-state relations have left even pious Catholics, such as Legorburo, with little hope of taking part in such gatherings. And only recently did Cuba's communist government ease travel restrictions, removing much of the time-consuming red tape and allowing some residents to travel with just a passport.

"I never even had a passport before this," Legorburo said in a telephone interview with Catholic News Service. "I never thought that I would travel, much less receive a gift such as this."

The church is covering all costs, which amounted to about $1,800 per person, said Sister Susana Maria Moreno, who helped to organize the delegation for the Cuban bishops' conference.

"The Cuban delegation is small compared to other countries," she said, "but our young people are going with great hope."

Bishop Beyra, president of the Cuban bishops' youth ministry commission, led a delegation to World Youth Day in Madrid in 2011. Cuban young people also attended World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008 and Rome in 2000. In 2002, about 200 young Cubans went to World Youth Day in Toronto, and 23 defected.

In an interview with a Spanish-language website, Bishop Beyra said securing the funding to send the delegation was the most difficult step. International church agencies donated the money.

At least two young people from each of the island's 11 dioceses were selected as well as various representatives of religious orders.

Miguel Angel Monto, a 23-year-old university student, described himself as "super excited" while awaiting a final Mass before heading to the airport July 15.

"What an opportunity this is for us," he said in a telephone interview.

Monto said that not long ago he thought he would never leave the country.

"Now, the moment has arrived for us to go and share with and meet other young people from all over the world," he said. "We'll be exposed to so many new things."

Delegation organizers also see the event as an important step for the Cuban church, which has had a historically tense relationship with a government that declared state atheism, exiled priests and expropriated Catholic schools.

The church estimates that 60-70 percent of Cubans identify as Catholic, but that only 2.5 percent of the country's 11 million people practice the religion. That number represents an increase since Blessed Pope John Paul II visited in 1998.

Pope Benedict XVI's visit last year, a trip in which he prayed at the shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, patroness of Cuba, inspired young people.

"With a friend, I woke at 2 a.m. ... to get to Havana for the Mass he gave," Legorburo said. "Lately, I feel that there have been important moments for the church in Cuba ... that have wakened people in the country."

Moreno agreed.

"We're in a significant time for the church in Cuba, on a positive path," she said. "This is an important opportunity for our youth."

END


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