Less than a mile off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, thousands of Cubans gathered at the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, Cuba awaiting Pope Francis’ arrival on September 22. Many Cubans waited for hours not knowing what to expect of the day’s event. The last time a pope visited the country was in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI. Pope John Paul II became the first pope to visit Cuba in 1998.
Two priests from the Diocese of Orlando traveled to Cuba for the pope’s pilgrimage: Father Gianni Agostinelli of St. Paul Catholic Church, Leesburg and Father Fernando Gil from the Tribunal Office at the Diocese. Both are amazed by the reaction of the country.
“To see the excitement on the faces of these Cubans is incredible,” said Father Gil. “The crowd is unbelievably massive and even when we had a moment of silence; people bowed their heads and there was not a single sound. People are truly paying attention to the Holy Father.”
Pope Francis walked a few feet from where Father Agostinelli and Father Gil stood among hundreds of priests. That particular moment left Father Gil floating on cloud nine.
“It was remarkable to be quite close to Pope Francis’ presence. He is extremely inspirational. It feels as though you are floating,” Father Gil remembers. “The people were chanting, ‘Viva el Papa’ and praising God. It was amazing to witness.”
For both Father Gil and Father Agostinelli, this pilgrimage is also about visiting the people of Cuba. Before Pope Francis’ arrival; both priests traveled to an old house in the town of Esperanza in hopes to visit a man named José who has relatives in Central Florida. Although José lives alone in deeply impoverished conditions, he and fellow Cubans in Esperanza, pray for the present and future of the Cuban nation.
The Church’s history in Cuba is tumultuous. Shortly after the revolution in 1959, the Catholic Church and all religion was prohibited. Catholic schools were nationalized and many churches were closed. Those who believed in God and wanted to freely express that faith were denied this opportunity. However, Father Gil said the Church in Cuba continues to strive due to the commitment of the Cuban people. Some have continued to practice their faith in secret fearing persecution.
“Prayerful life, sacrifice, extreme generosity, strong love for the family and unshakable hope for the immediate future characterizes the Church in Cuba,” said Father Gil. “In a country of more than 11 million people with only 350 priests in the whole nation, the Church also relies heavily on donations from the U.S. in order to do its work.”
Pope Francis departed from Jose Marti International Airport in Cuba for his 3 hour flight directly to Washington D.C. On September 23, thousands of people gathered to greet him at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception; including Father Timothy Daly from the Basilica of St. Paul in Daytona Beach.
As a young boy; Timothy Daly’s great aunt Catherine sent him a book about Father Junipero Serra. Daly learned all of Father Serra’s work to establish Missions in California. When Daly was older he felt inspired to visit a few missions. This is why Father Daly felt a strong connection at the Canonization Mass of Father Junipero Serra.
“It felt special to attend the canonization for a saint I had heard about since I was a child,” said Father Daly. “It’s also an honor to concelebrate with Pope Francis who I have so much respect for.”
Father Daly feels Pope Francis is moving the Church forward in a humble and positive way. The pope’s visit to the U.S. ignited a fire in the hearts of millions.
“He ministers to all regardless of creed, culture or position in life. He loves humanity and I am so grateful to God that he was called to serve as our Holy Father,” said Father Daly. “His keen pastoral sensitivity is inspirational. He truly believes, preaches and demonstrates that the Church is the people of God.”
During Pope Francis’ Homily at the Canonization Mass, he used newly canonized St. Junipero Serra’s motto to encourage the faithful to not allow their hearts to become cluttered with worries of the past.
“‘Siempre Adelante,’ keep moving forward. For him (St. Serra), this was the way to continue experiencing the joy of the Gospel, to keep his heart from growing numb,” said Pope Francis. “Today, like him, may we be able to say: Forward! Let’s keep moving forward!”