Catholic News Service
HAVANA, Cuba (CNS) – As Marian processions took place across Cuba, Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino called for domestic peace during Cuba's "new political situation" caused by President Fidel Castro's temporary ceding of power.
The cardinal also opposed "foreign interference" in Cuban affairs and said Catholics would continue praying for people in Castro's jails.
The cardinal's prayers for respect of Cuban sovereignty, for peace and for prisoners came Sept. 8 during a Mass to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre as Cuba's patroness.
The Mass started after 2,000 people filed down several Havana streets behind an image of Our Lady of Charity that Pope John Paul II had crowned during his 1998 visit. Accompanied by a band, they sang, prayed and shouted "vivas" to Mary.
The outdoor processions in Havana and 68 other places across Cuba are signs of some of the relaxed state restrictions on outdoor religious events as a result of the papal visit.
The Cuban church naturally turns to its patroness "at such significant times" in Cuban history as "the new political situation emerging because of the state of health of President Fidel Castro," Cardinal Ortega said in his homily, referring to Castro's operation for internal bleeding at the end of July.
The operation caused Castro to cede power to his brother, Raul Castro, while he recuperates. A gaunt 80-year-old Fidel Castro has been seen several times on television with no time limit set on his recuperation period.
Castro's illness has sparked speculation in Cuba and the United States as to the country's political future after he dies. For more than 40 years, the United States has had an economic embargo against the Caribbean nation because of opposition to the Castro government.
Michael Parmly, U.S. government representative in Cuba, attended the Havana procession and Mass.
In the homily, the cardinal noted that the bishops offered prayers Aug. 4 "that God accompany Fidel Castro in his illness and illuminate those responsible for the provisional government."
The cardinal said Cuba needed "fraternal harmony among all Cubans, so that nothing internally disturbs the peace and so that the homeland conserves its national identity and sovereignty without foreign interference."
Catholics "never cease to pray for those who are in prison, no matter the reason," he added.
"We ask that conditions of life improve for all our people. We pray and work so that violence does not triumph in the relationship among Cubans," said Cardinal Ortega.
One woman at the Mass, Maria Avila, said she is a "fervent devotee" of Cuba's patroness and participates yearly in the procession with her daughter because "we are both eternally thankful for our health."
Cubans leave flowers, candles and medals at the base of images of Our Lady of Charity in churches across the country as thanks for prayers answered or as accompaniment to new petitions.
The original 15-inch-high statue is in a shrine in the former copper mining town of El Cobre in southeast Cuba near Santiago, the country's second-largest city. It shows Mary holding the baby Jesus.
The statue traces its origins to the early 17th century, when several Indians from El Cobre went to the nearby Caribbean coast to gather salt from salt flats. Legend says that the Indians, while fishing in a small boat, saw the statue floating in the water after a shipwreck, and the statue contained an image with an inscription identifying it as Our Lady of Charity. They took the statue back to El Cobre, where devotion to it spread. It eventually evolved into a symbol of national identity.
Each day hundreds of people visit the El Cobre shrine, popularly know as "the chapel of miracles," to pray, ask for miracles, and offer flowers and other gifts ranging from crutches to gold jewelry and precious stones.
U.S. novelist Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Cuba for many years, donated the medal from his 1954 Nobel Prize in literature to the shrine as a gift to the Cuban people.