During Mass on Tuesday Pope Francis praised the rich devotion to Our Lady of Charity seeded in the hearts of Cubans, and told them to be like her in making haste to meet the needs of others in tenderness and charity. “Generation after generation, day after day, we are asked to renew our faith. We are asked to live the revolution of tenderness as Mary, our Mother of Charity, did,” the Pope said Sept. 22. “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.” Pope Francis spoke to the thousands gathered at the basilica of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre in Santiago de Cuba for Mass on his final day on the island before heading to the United States. In his homily, the Pope noted how since gaining independence from Spain in 1898,  Cuba’s birth as a free nation and continued growth have been “warmed by devotion to Our Lady of Charity.” Quoting the country’s bishops, he said that “In a special and unique way she has molded the Cuban soul, inspiring the highest ideals of love of God, the family and the nation in the heart of the Cuban people.” Found by two indigenous laborers and a slave boy around the year 1600, the small wooden statue of the Virgin Mary appeared after a storm that hit while the three were out at sea in an old boat looking for salt. What first appeared to be a bird floating on the water turned out to be an image of the Virgin Mary carrying the Child Jesus on her right arm, while holding a gold cross in her left hand. The statue had been fastened to a board with the inscription: “I am the Virgin of Charity,” and, despite being found in the water after a storm, the white material the statue was clothed in was completely dry. Devotion to the Virgin of Charity has since grown to a global level, and 100 years ago she was officially named Patroness of Cuba by Benedict XV, at the request of war veterans. In his homily, Pope Francis turned to the image of Mary in the day’s Gospel reading from Luke, which recounted Mary’s visitation to her cousin Elizabeth. The images offered in the Gospel passage are something to be contemplated over and over again, he said, explaining that “God’s presence in our lives never leaves us tranquil: it always pushes to do something.” Far from “thinking it was all about her” or that everyone ought to come and wait on her and foot, Mary immediately left her house and “went out to serve,” Francis observed. She went to her cousin at a slow and steady pace,  not too fast or too slow, neither anxious nor distracted, he said, explaining this is the path that Mary always took from that moment on. Like Elizabeth, Mary has also visited and accompanied many of our peoples “in the drama of their birth; she has watched over the struggles of those who fought to defend the rights of their children,” he said. Pope Francis noted the struggles which led to Cuba’s independence from Spain in 1898, concluding the third and final war leading to its liberation. The soul of the Cuban people, he said, “was forged amid suffering and privation which could not suppress the faith, that faith which was kept alive thanks to all those grandmothers who fostered, in the daily life of their homes, the living presence of God.” Just as Mary did in the Gospel, we too are being invited to leave our homes and open our eyes and hearts to others, sharing in both their joys and sorrows, Francis said. “Like Mary, Mother of Charity, we want to be a Church which goes forth to build bridges, to break down walls, to sow seeds of reconciliation.” Pope Francis concluded his homily saying that the greatest treasure and the most potent legacy that can be given is to learn to be like Mary setting out on the path of the visitation, and to pray with her out of remembrance and gratitude. This prayer, he said, “is the living reminder that God passes through our midst; the perennial memory that God has looked upon the lowliness of his people, he has come to the aid of his servant, even as promised to our forebears and their children forever.”

Archbishop Dionisio García lbá√±ez of Santiago de Cuba greeted Pope Francis at the conclusion of the Mass, saying the Cuban people experience God’s mercy in Our Lady of Charity, who is a source of inspiration. He said all Cubans near or far carry her in their hearts, because “she is a mother without distinction.  Believers and non-believers consider her an obvious sign of being Cuban because in her we see reflected the best yearnings and aspirations of our people.” Calling the Virgin of Charity “the first evangelizer in Cuba,” Archbishop García asked the Pope that he formally open the Marian Jubilee Year, held in honor of the centenary of her proclamation as patroness of Cuba. The Marian Jubilee was inaugurated during the Mass, and will conclude Sept. 24, 2016.