On Monday, September 21, the Pope left Havana and transferred to Holguin, the third largest city on the island in terms of number of inhabitants (1.5 million), and the recognised capital of Cuban music. It is the home of the National Ballet of Cuba, hosts an internationally renowned centre for the rehabilitation of drug users, and is a university town.
Upon arrival at Frank Pais Airport, Francis was received by the bishop of the diocese, Msgr. Emilio Aranguren Etcheverria, and greeted without a formal address the local authorities and around a hundred faithful who welcomed him, accompanied by a choir of children. He then travelled the twenty kilometres between the airport and the city centre by car, and the last three kilometres by popemobile, applauded by crowds. He arrived in Plaza de la Revolucion Calixto Garcia Iniguez de Holguin (1839-1898), dedicated to the Cuban patriot, where he celebrated Mass on the feast day of St. Matthew the apostle and evangelist.
“We are celebrating the story of a conversion”, said the Pope in his homily. “Matthew himself, in his Gospel, tells us what it was like, this encounter which changed his life. He shows us an ‘exchange of glances’ capable of changing history. On a day like any other, as Matthew, the tax collector, was seated at his table, Jesus passed by, saw him, came up to him and said: ‘Follow me’. Matthew got up and followed him”.
“How strong was the love in that look of Jesus, which moved Matthew to do what he did! What power must have been in his eyes to make Matthew get up from his table! We know that Matthew was a publican: he collected taxes from the Jews to give to the Romans. Publicans were looked down upon and considered sinners; as such, they lived apart and were despised by others. One could hardly eat, speak or pray with the likes of these. For the people, they were traitors: they extorted from their own to give to others. Publicans belonged to this social class”.
Jesus, on the other hand, stopped: “He did not quickly take his distance. He looked at Matthew calmly, peacefully. He looked at him with eyes of mercy; he looked at him as no one had ever looked at him before. And this look unlocked Matthew’s heart; it set him free, it healed him, it gave him hope, a new life, as it did to Zacchaeus, to Bartimaeus, to Mary Magdalen, to Peter, and to each of us. Even if we do not dare raise our eyes to the Lord, he looks at us first. This is our story, and it is like that of so many others. Each of us can say: ‘I, too, am a sinner, whom Jesus has looked upon”.
Jesus’ love “goes before us, his look anticipates our needs. He can see beyond appearances, beyond sin, beyond failures and unworthiness. He sees beyond our rank in society. He sees beyond this, to our dignity as sons and daughters, a dignity at times sullied by sin, but one which endures in the depth of our soul. He came precisely to seek out all those who feel unworthy of God, unworthy of others. Let us allow Jesus to look at us. Let us allow his gaze to run over our streets. Let us allow that look to become our joy, our hope”.
“After the Lord looked upon him with mercy, he said to Matthew: ‘Follow me’. Matthew got up and followed him. After the look, a word. After love, the mission. Matthew is no longer the same; he is changed inside. The encounter with Jesus and his loving mercy has transformed him. He leaves behind his table, his money, his exclusion. Before, he had sat waiting to collect his taxes, to take from others; now, with Jesus he must get up and give, give himself to others. Jesus looks at him and Matthew encounters the joy of service. For Matthew and for all who have felt the gaze of Jesus, other people are no longer to be ‘lived off’, used and abused. The gaze of Jesus gives rise to missionary activity, service, self-giving. Jesus’ love heals our short-sightedness and pushes us to look beyond, not to be satisfied with appearances or with what is politically correct”.
Jesus goes before us, he precedes us: “He opens the way and invites us to follow him. He invites us slowly to overcome our preconceptions and our reluctance to think that others, much less ourselves, can change. He challenges us daily with the question: ‘Do you believe? Do you believe it is possible that a tax collector can become a servant? Do you believe it is possible that a traitor can become a friend? Do you believe is possible that the son of a carpenter can be the Son of God?’ His gaze transforms our way of seeing things, his heart transforms our hearts. God is a Father who seeks the salvation of each of his sons and daughters”.
The Pope invited everyone to gaze upon the Lord in prayer, in the Eucharist, in Confession, and in our brothers and sisters, “especially those who feel excluded or abandoned. May we learn to see them as Jesus sees us. Let us share his tenderness and mercy with the sick, prisoners, the elderly and families in difficulty. Again and again we are called to learn from Jesus, who always sees what is most authentic in every person, which is the image of his Father”.
“I know the efforts and the sacrifices being made by the Church in Cuba to bring Christ’s word and presence to all, even in the most remote areas. Here I would mention especially the ‘mission houses’ which, given the shortage of churches and priests, provide for many people a place for prayer, for listening to the word of God, for catechesis and community life. They are small signs of God’s presence in our neighborhoods and a daily aid in our effort to respond to the plea of the apostle Paul: ‘I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’”.
Francis concluded by invoking the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, “whom Cuba embraced and to whom it opened its doors forever”, asking her “to look with maternal love on all her children in this noble country. May her ‘eyes of mercy’ ever keep watch over each of you, your homes, your families, and all those who feel that they have no place. In her love, may she protect us all as she once cared for Jesus”.
In the late afternoon, before leaving Holguin, the Pope climbed the “Loma de la Cruz”, the Hill of the Cross, a place of pilgrimage for the Cuban people. The cross that dominates the hill, which offers a panoramic view of the entire island, was erected in 1790 by Friar Antonio de Alegria and is reached by scaling 458 steps.
From the summit the Pope blessed the city with the following prayer: “Looking upon the Holy Cross, raised on the summit of this mountain, that illuminates the life of families, children and the young, the sick and all those who suffer, may they receive Your consolation and your nearness, and may they feel invited to follow Your Son, the only way to reach You”.