The place where Cachita* — as we fondly call our patron saint — receives her devotees has seen busy days before the arrival of Pope Francis. In the Basilica of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, located in Santiago de Cuba Province, the details for the Bishop of Rome’s September 22 Mass are ready. At this moment, the eleven miles separating El Cobre from the provincial capital are a constant back and forth of people and vehicles.
During a press conference on September 15, Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba Dionisio García Ibáñez explained that the Papal entourage will be landing at Antonio Maceo International Airport in the afternoon of September 21, and then immediately head for El Cobre.
On this occasion, repairs to the Basilica of The Virgin of Charity have been primarily focused on the façade, the interior décor, and the garden areas. The building was totally restored in 2012 for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the island, as well as to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the statue of the Patroness of Cuba.
The very popular Chapel of Miracles, previously full of offerings for the fulfillment of some promise made to the Virgin, was returned to its original function as a sacristy in 2012. The impressive gifts people have left for Cachita were moved to two side chapels that had been previously closed.
According to Catholic Church officials, after arriving in the afternoon in Santiago de Cuba, “he (Francis) will meet with Cuban bishops, and visit the sanctuary.” Once there, the Pope will offer a gift to the Virgin of Charity, and light a candle with the flame of a candle lit by Benedict XVI during his visit to the Basilica.
As did the previous pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio will spend the night at the priests’ residence hall adjacent to the chapel.
Opened on September 8, 1927, the Basilica now exhibits reconditioned woodwork with the shrine to the Virgin renovated so that the faithful can see it up closer. The surrounding buildings, such as the retreat and fellowship house and the guesthouse are in wonderful shape, although they were built over sixty years ago. However, the power, water and sewer systems have not been modernized.
Francis will offer a Mass at the El Cobre shrine attended by the residents of the small rural communities where there are no churches, according to the Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba. García Ibáñez also said that two children will present the Pope with a copy of the manuscript made by the veterans of the war of independence asking that the Virgin of Charity be made the Patron Saint of Cuba.**
After the conclusion of the Mass in El Cobre, the Pope will go to Santiago de Cuba’s cathedral, where representatives of families from throughout the country will be waiting for him. After blessing the city on its 500th anniversary, Francis will leave for the airport, thus ending his visit to the island.
*An affectionate nickname for anyone named “Caridad,” or “Charity,” including Our Lady of Charity herself.
**The petition was made to Pope Benedict XV in 1915, and it was approved the following year.
Translated by José Badué