Following the Pope in Cuba
Eyewitness Report by Father Jack Wintz

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    Thursday evening, January 22, 1998

    (Telepone interview by John Bookser Feister)

    Q: Father Jack Wintz, you're in Cuba, traveling with the pope. What did you do today?

    A:  Today the pope had a Mass in the city of Santa Clara, which is a city of some 200,000 people, about a three-hour drive to the east of Havana. Our group went there for Mass, which was at 10:30 this morning. Santa Clara is famous for a memorial of Che Guevara. As you know, Che Guevara was a hero of the revolution and he happened to win an important battle at Santa Clara, hence the memorial.

    The Mass took place in a large athletic field in Santa Clara. There was, as usual, an immense crowd for that occasion. The crowd has been estimated by a number of people at being over 100,000. There was great enthusiasm for the pope. The pope's voice, however, when it came to his homily, sounded very weak and shaky. It almost seemed to be fading to nothing at times.

    Yet, as I observed, the crowd generally kept its enthusiasm until the very end. They even stayed around after the Mass was over, participating in the music and so forth. The music was bright and bouncy Caribbean music, the kind of music for which Cuba is famous.

    Q: How do you think the people responded to the pope's message today?

    A: Despite the pope's weariness, the people seemed to see in his message some very strong ideas. One man from Santa Clara who I judged to be maybe 70 years old spoke a little English. He told me that the pope's words were very strong and that the pope "opened the minds of the people. We have had a closed society," he told me. I asked him, "Now do you expect it to be a more open society?" He nodded very clearly the answer, yes.

    During the Mass I had the opportunity to walk around the crowd, and I noticed that many people were using the programs printed by the Diocese of Santa Clara. These programs looked something like a missalette. They had the hymns and prayers. They were very attractively printed, with a picture of the pope and so forth--very modern. The programs explained who the pope is, had a bit of his biography, explained why the Mass, the Eucharist, is so central to the Catholic faith. They included a prayer to Our Lady of Charity. So the booklets became something of a small catechism and at the same time an aid to prayer.

    Q: Our Lady of Charity is important to the Cuban people. Can you tell us a little about that?

    A: The Virgin of Charity, La Virgen de Caridad, or Our Lady of Charity, is the patron of the island. It's an ancient image of Mary that's very much revered and that is in a famous church near the city of Santiago de Cuba. A highlight of the pope's ceremony, gathering for worship and prayer, will be a crowning of this Virgin of Charity. I'm sure that this is going to mean very much to the people. It's going to be a very powerful moment--not only a spiritual moment but a kind of moment in the culture. And I'm sure it's going to have political ramifications.

    Q: Father Jack, what stood out for you in the Mass today? Was there any particular moment that you will remember?

    A: I told you about the one man from Santa Clara who said that the pope's words opened the minds of the people. There was another man, a doctor from Havana, who is a very active Catholic. He also indicated that the pope's message--even though delivered with quite a weak voice and with some hesitancy--was very strong. And then he added that the Church is undergoing many changes in recent years and especially in recent months as the time of the pope's visit has approached. He said, "The Church is undergoing many changes, but there is no going back." 

    Another thing I would like to report on was near the very end of the ceremony. There was a chant the crowd was chanting over and over again in the presence of the pope: "Juan Pablo Segundo, Cuba esta contigo!" which, translated, means, "John Paul II, Cuba is with you!"

    I think this is what is happening these days of the pope's visit. He is finding a tremendous response to his message. The people feel that their revitalized and growing faith is being confirmed. They are standing by the Holy Father, who is their spiritual leader.

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