In his first stop of a six-day visit to Cuba, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan walked in without fanfare Feb. 8 into the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in the town of El Cobre, likely the most popular sacred space in Cuba, joining the hundreds of citizens and tourists of this island nation who crowd in to visit a statue of the Madonna, some hoping for a miracle through her intercession.
If he had a wish in his heart, New York's archbishop didn't say it aloud as he got his first glance at her, walking in as any other pilgrim toward the statue inside the shrine. Some stopped to ask if they could take a photo with him or of him with their children.
Archbishop Dionisio Garcia Ibanez of Santiago, the city closest to the shrine, had told him earlier to walk in "discreetly," though smiling and saying, "If that's possible," because in a cassock and his tall frame, Cardinal Dolan towered above everyone, except the figure of the tiny Madonna perched high above the altar.
In his role as a high-ranking U.S. church leader visiting during a time of tense political waters in his country toward Cuba, he offered during the homily the only things he could to other Catholics and visitors gathered for Mass there that day: his presence, his gratitude, solidarity as a Christian and trust that God, along with Jesus and Mary, is with them.
"We only arrived yesterday in Cuba and this is our first stop -- on purpose -- because we are one family in the church. ... When we came to Cuba we wanted to come to the house of our mother, Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, and we're grateful to God we are here," he said in the homily interpreted from English into Spanish by Auxiliary Bishop Octavio Cisneros of Brooklyn, N.Y., though the cardinal celebrated the rest of the Mass in Spanish.
He received applause after expressing his thanks to God for being able to visit the shrine, calling it a "dream." Archbishop Garcia Ibanez said you could tell from the faces in the crowd that many Cubans present had received with gratitude his message and "that says a lot," he said.
But that journey toward showing solidarity with Cubans has become harder for others to make, particularly Americans, after the Trump administration sought to make it more difficult to travel to the island, closing some paths that had opened under President Barack Obama's friendlier policies toward Cuba.
The thaw of decades-long tensions between the two countries was eased by diplomatic help from the Vatican. It had produced more contact between the citizens and officials of the two countries, something the Catholic Church -- from the Vatican to the U.S. bishops -- has long advocated in the search of peace.
"Yesterday was a long day, a long difficult journey. It was difficult for us, but every trip, every journey is difficult, especially the journey of life," Cardinal Dolan told the crowd, speaking of his journey from the U.S. to El Cobre, which took almost a full day when weeks ago, it would have taken hours.
Direct flights from the U.S. to Santiago, the closest city to the shrine with an airport, have come to a halt as they did for other Cuban cities except Havana. A serious oil shortage heightened by U.S. sanctions has led to a scarcity of flights inside the island, forcing the cardinal to board the Feb. 7 evening leg to Santiago or risk not going at all.
But even in that difficulty, Cardinal Dolan followed in the steps of Cubans going to great lengths to visit the statue of the Madonna at the shrine even as transportation made the journey arduous.
He assured them, without referencing the island's woes, that in any difficulty, God always is present.
"It's a difficult moment, and that's precisely when you see the church so full," Archbishop Garcia Ibanez said in a Feb. 8 interview with Catholic News Service. "With so many difficulties -- transportation, the economy -- you realize the devotion of the people is still there. Many make the sacrifice."
The oil shortage has affected pilgrims' visit to the shrine, locals said, but many, including Cardinal Dolan, were making the effort, including bringing in family, particularly children, to visit the statue of Our Lady of Charity. Archbishop Garcia Ibanez said he saw the cardinal's visit as a "special symbol of communion" and solidarity with Cubans, and a commitment to unity in difficult times.
"There can be many differences, but the church is one, the belief in God is one and there's only one pastor, therefore one community," Archbishop Garcia Ibanez told CNS.
The Cuban bishops on the way to and from El Cobre showed up to accompany him in any way they could to show that sense of community, even if their respective countries might find themselves at odds.
"In the church, we feel like brothers and sisters. There are many other aspects of life, political, ideological, where there may be many differences but those differences must be resolved through understanding and comprehension by various parties," Archbishop Garcia Ibanez said.
In Havana, Cardinal Juan Garcia Rodriguez, the archbishop of Havana, and other officials from the archdiocese remained with the New York cardinal in his six-hour wait at the airport, which also involved government officials.
When he finally arrived in Santiago at about 1:30 a.m. (local time) Feb. 8, the Santiago archbishop along with an entourage from his diocese were there to welcome him. The government provided for the cardinal a patrol car escort on his way to his resting quarters at a retreat house near the shrine.
Because of the difficulty in flights from Santiago to Havana, the cardinal heads back to the island's capital -- a full day's drive -- by car, making a stop in Camaguey where he was welcomed by Archishop Wilfredo Pino Estevez before heading back to Havana.
Though most of the cardinal's visits are with the country's prelates and to sites important to the church, Cardinal Dolan is scheduled to meet before he leaves with Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez, who extended an invitation to the cardinal to visit the island when the two met in New York in 2018.