EL COBRE, CUBA -- In one of his most anticipated homilies, Pope Francis turned Tuesday to the Gospel of Mary, describing her “love and tenderness” during his Mass at the shrine of Our Lady of Charity hours before ending his four-day visit to the island.
“Mary was far from thinking it was all about her, or thinking that everyone had to come and wait upon her; she left her house and went out to serve,” the pope said before an audience inside the Minor Basilica that included Cuban leader Raúl Castro. Thousands more listened from chairs set up outside the shrine.
“First she goes to help her cousin Elizabeth. The joy which blossoms when we know that God is with us, with our people, gets our heart beating, gets our legs moving and draws us out of ourselves.” Francis said.
He later said that Mary’s “maternal presence” has visited Cuba, adding that “whenever we look to Mary, we come to believe once again in the revolutionary nature of love and tenderness.”
Like Mary, he said, “we are invited to leave home and to open our eyes and hearts to others. Our revolution comes about through tenderness, through the joy which always becomes closeness and compassion, and leads us to get involved in, and to serve, the life of others.”
While at the shrine, Francis declared a year of jubilee to mark the 100th anniversary since La Virgen del Cobre became the country’s patron saint.
While Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI also visited the site, this is the first time that a pontiff has celebrated Mass at the shrine, which lies about 30 minutes from Santiago, Cuba’s second-largest city.
“This is the spiritual heart of the country,” the Rev. Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said of the shrine. “The pope is here to participate as a son and a pilgrim.”
Francis arrived in Santiago on Monday and went directly to the shrine, where he offered a brief prayer and was serenaded by a children’s choir.
Later on Tuesday, he plans to meet with families and bless Santiago from the balcony of its 16th Century cathedral.
Then, he’ll be off to Washington, D.C. for a four-day trip that will also take him to New York and Philadelphia.
One of the hot tickets on the U.S. journey will be his Thursday address to the U.S. Congress.
Asked if Francis would protest the U.S. embargo during his address on Capitol Hill, Lombardi said the church had a “long history” of speaking out against the economic measure.
However, “I’m not a prophet of what the pope might say in coming days,” he cautioned.
Tucked into the southeastern corner of the country, Santiago is central to the island’s communist past.
On July 26, 1953, Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl led an attack on the Moncada barracks and the nearby Palace of Justice. The ambush failed and the Castros ended up in jail, but the effort is considered the origin of the revolution that ultimately succeeded in 1959.
Jiovani Martinez, 46, was sitting in the shade of the one-time military installation, which is now the 26th of July school. He said the visit of Francis and his two predecessors to the small island is a testament to Cuba’s oversized reputation in the world.
He said the country punches above its weight, sending doctors and aid around the world despite the poverty at home.
“That’s why popes come here,” he said. “And that’s why popes will keep coming here.”