Vatican City, 22 September 2015 (VIS) – At 4 p.m. local time (10 p.m. in Rome) Pope Francis departed by air from Holguin for Santiago de Cuba, the country's second largest city and rival to Havana in terms of its literary, musical and political life. Santiago was founded in 1514 by Diego Velazquez and was the island's capital from 1515 to 1617. Home of the “son”, the dance that was the precursor to the “salsa”, its monuments include the Castle of El Morro, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Basilica of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre. The city is currently preparing to celebrate the fifth centenary of its foundation.
The Holy Father was received at the Antonio Maceo airport by several hundred faithful and by the local authorities, and transferred to the St. Basil the Great seminary. One of the oldest educational institutions in Cuba, it was founded in 1722, nationalised and transformed into a public school in 1961, and re-established as a seminary in 1997. There, Francis met privately, without a prepared discourse, with the Cuban episcopate.
Following the meeting, Francis visited the nearby national Shrine to Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, the most venerated pilgrimage site in Cuba, whose history is closely linked to the social and political events of the country. In 1606 three fishermen, two Indians and an African slave, found an image of the Virgin floating in the waters of the bay of Nipe bearing the phrase “I am the Virgin of Charity”. The image was taken to the copper mines in the nearby town of El Cobre, where the first shrine was built in 1684. In 1801 the “Manifesto for the freedom of the slaves of the mines of El Cobre” was read at the Shrine, and in 1868 Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, pioneer of the abolition of slavery and Cuban independence, made a pilgrimage to the Shrine and prayed for the liberation of Cuba before the sacred image. On 12 July 1898 a thanksgiving Mass was celebrated there for the liberation of the island, attended by the officials of the Liberation Army, and in 1916, in view of the growing devotion on the part of the Cuban people, Pope Benedict XV proclaimed “Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre” the patroness of Cuba. In 1927 the current Shrine was inaugurated and in 1936 the archbishop of Santiago de Cuba crowned the Virgin as the Mother and Patroness of Cuba. In 1977, Blessed Paul VI conferred to the Shrine the title of Minor Basilica.
The Pope and the archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, Dionisio Guillermo Garcia Ibanez, along with the Cuban bishops and the papal entourage, were received at the Basilica by the rector. Francis knelt before the image, asking that her people dispersed around the globe might be reunited. “Make the Cuban nation a home of brothers and sisters, so that this people opens its mind, heart and life to Christ, the sole Saviour and Redeemer”. He also prayed to the Lord for families and for children and the young, who are the wealth and hope of the country. Finally, he left before the image a silver vase containing flowers in the colours of the Vatican, yellow and white.
This afternoon, 22 September, the Holy Father will celebrate Mass in the Basilica of Our Lady of El Cobre, and then in the cathedral of Santiago where he will meet with Cuban families and bless the city. He will then leave Cuba at 12.30 local time (6.30 p.m. in Rome), destined for the United States of America, where he will be received at the Andrews air base in Washington D.C., following a flight lasting three and a half hours.