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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Celebrating the Feast of the Queen of Cuba and of Heaven and Earth...

"When we had crossed over the divide and were going down through the green valleys towards the Caribbean Sea, I saw the yellow Basilica of Our Lady of Cobre, standing on a rising above the tin roofs of the mining village in the depths of a deep bowl of green, backed by cliffs and sheer slopes robed in the jungle.

There you are, Caridad del Cobre! It is you that I have come to see; you will ask Christ to make me His priest, and I will give you my heart, Lady: and if you will obtain for me this priesthood, I will remember you at my first Mass in such a way that the Mass will be for you and offered through your hands in gratitude to the Holy Trinity, Who has used your love to win me this great grace."

In his internationally renowned autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which I am close to finishing, Thomas Merton describes his first encounter with La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre (known in English as Our Lady of Charity or Our Lady of Cobre), shortly after arriving in Cuba in 1940.

Merton took the trip while discerning his vocation to the priesthood, and thinking he was about to enter a monastery, in what he admittedly described as ninety nine percent vacation and one percent pilgrimage to see Our Lady of Charity, patroness of Cuba.

However, his experience with the Cuban Catholic faithful in the streets of Havana, Matanzas, Camaguey and Santiago stirred within him more emotion and inspiration than he anticipated; to the extent that he wrote a poem of a conversation he had with La Caridad.

In the book, Merton vividly describes the grandeur of countless centuries-old Spanish churches, with elaborate stained glasses, altars, images of the Blessed Mother and other saints, and the piety of ordinary faithful.  He writes, "everywhere were Cubans in prayer."

In fact, until Communism took control in 1959, and over a hundred and fifty Catholic priests were forced leave the country, Catholic schools were shut down, Atheism embraced by the regime and the Church was marginalized or outright attacked and forced into hiding, faith was a huge part of the Cuban culture. And, devotion to La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre was a common thread that united all Cubans, far and wide.  She is part of the Cuban identity.

An identity, according to Catholic journalist and author, Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda, that is almost 400 years in the making:
Like most Marian apparitions, the story of Our Lady of Charity, which dates to 1612, began in a nameless place and involved ordinary, undistinguished people. Three boys were gathering salt needed to preserve the meat of the town’s slaughterhouse, which supplied food for the copper mine workers and inhabitants near Santiago, Cuba. Two of the boys were native Indian brothers, Rodrigo and Juan de Hoyos, and the third was a 10-year-old black slave, Juan Moreno.

On their way back to Santiago del Prado (modern El Cobre, meaning “copper”) and halfway across the Bay of Nipe, they encountered a fierce storm that threatened their frail vessel. Suddenly the waters calmed. In the distance the boys saw a white bundle floating on a piece of wood. It was a small statue of Mary holding the infant Jesus on her left arm and a gold cross on her raised right hand. Inscribed on the wooden board were the words, “Yo soy la Virgen de la Caridad” (“I am Our Lady of Charity”).

Much like the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the statue of Our Lady of Charity that the three youths brought to their village of Barajaguas instantly became a destination for pilgrims, a reminder for the underprivileged that their heavenly mother cared and stood beside them. El Cobre was to be the first place in Cuba where freedom was won for black slaves in 1886.

Nuestra SeƱora de la Caridad del Cobre may not be as well known in the United States as Our Lady of Guadalupe, but you can find her image in churches around the country and the world. Wherever Cuban refugees settled, they brought with them their devotion to la Caridad, or Cachita, as Cubans call her.
And, in Miami, the heartland of the Cuban exile community, the Feast Day of La Virgen de la Caridad, September 8th, which coincides with the date the Church Universal celebrates the birth of the Blessed Mother, takes on a greater importance.

As a Miami Herald article recently pointed out, fifty years ago, in 1961, a replica of the statue found in 1612 was smuggled into Miami aboard a commercial flight. It arrived just in time for the first Mass celebrated in Spanish in South Florida, for the commemoration of La Virgencita’s Feast Day.  Thirty thousand newly arrived exiles filled Bobby Maduro Stadium, the old spring training site of the Baltimore Orioles, for the open-air Mass.

Several years later, through the sweat and tears of the mostly humble Cuban exile community, a shrine, better known as La Ermita de La Caridad, was built on Biscayne Bay. It has been the epicenter of Miami’s Cuban Catholic faithful ever since. Whenever an important development happens in Cuba, or around the world, Cubans flock to La Ermita to pray for intercesion; not to the statue but to whom it represents. (In recent years, it has also become the worship center for other Latin Americans in South Florida)

Looking back at my own experience with La Virgencita, I can relate to the prayers (both to and from).

My parents tell me I was consecrated to La Caridad, as a baby.  Although, as I grew up, I didn't have a particularly close affinity with La Caridad, I did have it with the Blessed Virgin Mary (and for those unfamiliar, all the different portrayals of the Blessed Virgin, including La Caridad, Guadalupe, Lourdes, Fatima, etc., are representations of the same Mary, Mother of Jesus, who has appeared in different forms to different cultures through the ages) and pray  to her daily. 

I now realize, that there were many times in my life, especially in my late teens, that her intercession may have been the reason I am still here today.

There were nights with friends, where I can honestly say, I only got home safely because of her prayers and God's Mercy.

In fact, I had a small statue of Our Lady of Charity on the dashboard of my first car and I remember my closest high school friend, who is not Catholic, often telling her, "Little Virgin, get us home!" as we drove back from Ft. Lauderdale, or other distant place, in the wee hours of the morning, and she always did.

In The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton describes his brief meeting with the Virgin at the shrine in Cobre, "I walked up the path that wound around the mound on which the Basilica stands. Entering the door, I was surprised that the floor was so shiny and the place was so clean. I was in the back of the church, up in the apse, in a kind of oratory behind the high altar, and there, facing me, in a little shrine, was La Caridad, the little, cheerful, black Virgin, crowned with a crown and dressed in royal robes, who is the Queen of Cuba."

Today, Cubans around the world celebrate our Queen, as well as, the Queen of Heaven and Earth…

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