By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published November 26, 2015
CONYERS—The opportunity to return to Cuba in September to reunite with family and meet Pope Francis was a pilgrimage nearly 50 years in the making for Maria Morera Johnson.
A parishioner of St. Pius X Church in Conyers, Johnson traveled to her native Cuba with her mother, Begoña Morera, and her aunts.
“It was a trip of a lifetime,” said Johnson. And if she had to pick a way to describe the journey, “it would be joyful.”
Johnson, a professor at Georgia Piedmont Technical College, author and blogger, first arrived in the United States in 1966 with her mother.
Johnson’s father, Alex Morera, had come to America in 1962, just months before the Cuban missile crisis to look for work. The events that unfolded during the following weeks would force Morera to be separated for four years from his wife and child, born after his departure. Eventually, the mother and daughter were able to leave Cuba by exit visa to Mexico, where they spent several months waiting for an entry visa to the United States.
This first trip back to Cuba was a pilgrimage on various levels—spiritual, social and cultural, noted Johnson.
Bishop Emilio Aranguren Echeverria of the Diocese of Holguín, Cuba, is Johnson’s uncle.
When Pope Francis was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, he received a dinner invitation from Bishop Echeverria, but scheduling prevented the meeting. The pope was finally able to be the bishop’s guest during his Sept. 19-22 visit to Cuba. Following Mass in Holguín Sept. 21, Pope Francis arrived at the bishop’s home where he was to spend the night. The bishop’s visiting family had accommodations nearby.
“We had the private audience. It was such a beautiful, honorable thing,” said Johnson about the pope’s acceptance of the invitation.
A selfie with Pope Francis
The pope’s outdoor Mass was celebrated in the Plaza of the Revolution, and afterward the family scrambled to be ready to meet him at the bishop’s home.
The bishop had invited all of his siblings and niece to the audience, and they assembled in front of an image of Christ the Good Shepherd for a photograph with Pope Francis. The meeting lasted 15 minutes.
“It’s a sweet family story,” said Johnson. “We were each presented in birth order. I went with my mother as her daughter.”
Johnson, who had been teasing her mother for weeks that she was on a “mission to get a selfie with the pope,” decided ultimately to ask for a cell phone picture.
“Would you do this for me for my children?” Johnson asked Pope Francis, who guffawed at the request.
Just as the pope finished chuckling and was composing himself, Maria took the photo a bit early and captured a serious looking Pope Francis.
“My mother was mortified,” said Johnson. But later Morera said to her, “Show me that picture.”
The pope’s willingness to accept the request embodies his openness and graciousness. “It was this moment that was so fatherly,” said Johnson.
As she was taking the selfie, she heard another shutterbug clicking away.
“The Vatican photographer was present,” explained Johnson.
Following the audience with the bishop’s family, the prelate took the pope out to meet his extended family.
“Now, let me present you to my neighbors,” the bishop told Pope Francis.
The bishop joined his relatives for the remainder of the trip. The family traveled on to Santa Clara, where Johnson had lived, and then to Havana.
“I really felt like a tourist until we got to Santa Clara,” said Johnson.
Johnson enjoyed reconnecting with family and friends there. One cousin greeted her with “you’re my flesh and blood.”
A former neighbor, now in her 90s, posed for a photograph with Johnson. An old photo shows Johnson sitting on her neighbor’s lap, and this time the frail woman sat on Johnson’s lap for the picture.
“She used to rock me to sleep,” said Johnson.
Newly written book left at shrine
A highlight of the trip was a visit to the National Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre.
Cubans have long had a devotion to Our Lady of Charity.
“The pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity was very special to me,” said Johnson.
November brings the release of Johnson’s new book, “My Badass Book of Saints: Courageous Women Who Showed Me How to Live.”
The publisher, Ave Maria Press, provided her an advance copy to offer in thanksgiving at the shrine. Johnson tucked the names of people who have helped her with the process inside the book, which will be archived as a gift.
“It’s so intimately connected with the trip to Cuba,” said Johnson about the book. “I guess it was already in Mary’s hands.”
Ernest Hemingway offered his Nobel Prize in literature for “The Old Man and the Sea” at the shrine in 1954 as an offering to the Blessed Mother.
During a Mass in Holguín, “in the heart of the city” it was remarkable to hear urban noise outside the church, bringing it home that Jesus is present in Cuba.
It was also a treat to attend Mass in Spanish, as Johnson participates in Mass in English at home.
“It took me traveling 900 miles to recognize the universality of the church,” she said.
The family had a sentimental stop at a parish where Johnson’s grandmother would let her children play on the playground while she shopped.
Inside the church were five young people having choir practice. While it was a small group, they appeared enthusiastic about being there, indicating that Cuba’s church is small but strong.
She believes that Cuba’s encounter with Pope Francis, an “everyman kind of guy” is part of the whole process of the country being able to move forward.
Johnson was also reminded of Pope St. John Paul II’s urging to open Cuba to the world and the world to Cuba.
The climate is changing in Cuba, she said. Its people want the chance to pursue dreams, make a good living for their families, and practice their faith.
“They want what everybody wants,” said Johnson.