By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published September 27, 2012
As the small statue of La Virgen de la Caridad, Our Lady of Charity, was carried aloft on a platform decorated with flowers, members of the Cuban community processed behind as it entered the Cathedral of Christ the King Sept. 8.
Marking the 400th anniversary of La Virgen’s appearance, the community prayed for their homeland with and to the patroness of Cuba, affectionately known as “Cachita.”
“She is a symbol of our nation before we were even a nation; the Virgin of Charity was present before our flag and our anthem,” said Raul Trujillo, an organizer of the Atlanta commemoration that dates back some 40 years.
Our Lady of Charity is just one devotion by Catholics in the Atlanta Archdiocese to the mother of Jesus that is dear to a particular people and nation. Mexicans have Our Lady of Guadalupe. Vietnamese have Our Lady of La Vang. Brazilians celebrate Our Lady of Aparecida. The Immaculate Conception is the major feast in the United States.
The Virgin Mary will be featured as part of the Year of Faith celebrations in the Atlanta Archdiocese. The Year of Faith begins on Oct 11. Catholics will be encouraged to participate in the many cultural expressions of devotion to the Blessed Mother. A new website and a smartphone app, which will be released soon, will have a calendar of the different cultural events that will take place.
The faithful believe the devotions to Our Lady of Charity and other celebrations of Mary carry a message that can deepen faith across borders.
“People go to her looking for hope for the present and the future,” said Yaky Fernandez, about Our Lady of Charity. She has a replica of the statue in her home, where she prays.
The story is all about hope. Three men, two Indians and a slave, in the midst of a storm-tossed ocean discovered the statue and survived to make it to shore safely, she said.
Silvia Pellon said looking at the statue is inspiring.
“She is the mother of our redeemer. She is carrying Jesus in her arms and in the other, the cross. A symbol of the cross is redemption for any Christian, any Catholic,” she said. “She touches every heart.”
And the motto of the anniversary has a universal appeal, she said.
“To Jesus, through Mary, we remain in charity” is the motto.
Around The World, Mary Has Become Incarnate
In Africa, a growing devotion is to Our Lady of Kibeho, in Rwanda, said Father Henry Atem, a native of Cameroon and pastor of St. George Church, Newnan. Catholics are drawn to her through the popularity of a recent book by a survivor of the Rwandan genocide.
Over all, the rosary and Litany of Loreto stand out as the highest Marian devotions among many African Catholics, he said.
For Africans, the Virgin Mary is tied to the cultural power and respect owed to childbearing women.
“There is something sacred about every woman especially when she can bear children. This sacredness is not only due to her ability to nurture life within her but also her ability to sustain it even beyond. It is Mary’s motherhood that connects her to the African Catholic experience,” Father Atem said. “However, she is not only a mother like all the mothers in the neighborhood; she is the mother of God’s own child. The fact that she was the instrument God chose to bring his only Son into the world is very significant and profound to an African Catholic.”
Church leaders highlight Mary as a unifying image for people who may not share the same language, history or culture.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory said he remembers with “great delight” the richness of the Marian celebrations in his native Chicago Archdiocese as well in Atlanta, from festivities for Polish and Croatian peoples to the Cuban and Vietnamese communities.
“In each situation the children of Mary recall that she has become one with them, taking on their appearance, their language, their attire—she follows her Son’s pattern of becoming incarnate within the human family,” he said.
And the Church celebrates the differences because it enlivens the Church, said the dean of the theology school at the Catholic University of America, Father Mark Morozowich.
Father Morozowich said the Church sees its relationship with the Virgin Mary rooted in the Gospel of John, where at the crucifixion Jesus tells his “beloved disciple” to “behold your mother.”
Those words encourage people to see themselves as the unnamed disciple and that each are called to have a relationship with Mary, he said.
The Second Vatican Council’s “Lumen Gentium” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) stated that Mary is the “prime model” of discipleship because of her willingness to say yes to God when the angel Gabriel visited her to announce she would conceive and she should name the child Jesus, he said.
Catholics are called to “imitate Mary most completely, by saying ‘yes, Lord, let it be done to me according to your will,’” he said.
The cultural celebrations grow out of this enthusiasm to be close to Mary.
People in varied cultures see her as close, approachable, warm and they “hold on to the particular expression of this inculturation of this love,” he said.
Archbishop Gregory said at the Second Vatican Council bishops viewed how Mary “became the model and the mother of the Church as the first person of faith.”
“Mary was placed in her proper place of honor by the council as the Mother of the Word made flesh and the very image of the Church in its perfection,” he said.
Our Lady Consoles, Unites Cubans In The Diaspora
Atlanta’s celebration of Our Lady of Charity dates to the 1970s. It continues to be a major event in the Atlanta Catholic community, drawing hundreds of people together.
“Personally it is rewarding to see how for more than 40 years in Atlanta, many generations have been coming together, including some that are not Catholic, to pray for Cuba and their needs in this annual celebration,” said Trujillo.
An estimated 300 people attended the Mass on Sept. 8, which was celebrated by Archbishop Gregory along with five priests and four deacons.
Fernandez, 56, left Cuba in 1971. She recalled how Catholics could not observe the feast day publicly as they were being watched by police and the government. So people celebrated it privately, behind closed doors.
As a Cuban-American, the feast shows “a universal union with all Cubans, regardless of where we are,” she said. “This celebration signifies love, charity and hope for all Cubans inside and outside the island.”
The Pellons arrived here in 1975 and now live close to the Peachtree Road cathedral.
They attend the annual Mass because it is about “touching roots. We all love Our Lady of Charity,” said Silvia Pellon.
Now in their early 80s, they concede their age makes them remain in the pews during the procession. They said at one point, tears flow at the celebration as the congregation sings a Marian hymn that matches the Cuban national anthem.
Indeed, Trujillo said the celebration celebrates “our patroness and prayers for our homeland, our nation divided with those in the island and those here in the diaspora. They come praying for peace and freedom.”
As part of the celebration, the community pauses to remember women and men of the community who died in the previous year, “who have died away from the homeland.”
A native of Havana, Cuba, Trujillo returned to Cuba in June, after 50 years of being away. He was invited by a Cuban bishops’ committee for a meeting of 16 Cubans from the diaspora with church leaders. In 1962, he went with his mother on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Charity.
“It was a remarkable experience to be at the sanctuary once again,” he said of his 2012 visit.
He reconnected with cousins and visited his old neighborhood. He said people feel little hope for their future with the current political system.
The visits of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to Cuba have allowed people to proclaim their faith.
“It looked like nothing happened. It was discouraging. But it is amazing how God works. The Holy Father revived the faith. They could not control the people,” said Fernandez, a member of St. Peter Chanel Church, Roswell.
Fernandez watched videos of celebrations on the Internet. She’s amazed to see how people who would stay away from the church are now preparing for sacraments.
Trijullo said the Church in Cuba is “experiencing resurgence and the Virgin of Charity is the symbol that brings the people to the Church and Christ.”
Our Lady Of Charity: Patroness Of Cuba
- Around 1600 the statue was found floating in the ocean by three men, one a slave. They are traditionally called the “three Juans” and they were on the ocean gathering salt. A storm erupted and they prayed for protection. They found shelter on an island and the next morning they spotted the statue, with the Virgin holding Jesus and a cross.
- One of the mysteries is the statue was said to be dry while it floated in the ocean. The statue was fastened to a board with an inscription saying “Yo soy la Virgen de la Caridad” or “I am the Virgin of Charity.”
- The main church in the community was dedicated to St. James, a patron of the Hispanic conquest. In 1630, the copper mines closed and the slaves were freed. The Virgin took St. James’ place above the high altar in the church, a symbol of the triumph of the people over the Spanish rulers.
- The shrine of Our Lady of Charity is housed in Cuba’s only basilica, in the town of El Cobre.
- The shrine is known to attract believers and nonbelievers alike. Ernest Hemingway gave the Virgin the Nobel Prize for Literature he won after writing “The Old Man and the Sea.”
- Pope Benedict XVI visited the shrine in 2012. He placed at her feet a golden rose, a sacramental that dates back to 1049 and is granted to pre-eminent Catholics, originally queens.