My Return to Cuba by Maria Morera Johnson
It had been fifty years almost to the day since I left Cuba as a little girl. I was returning for the first time after a lifetime of longing…and I didn’t know what to expect.
Soft rain fell on the tarmac in the Holguin Airport in a province on the easternmost part of the island. I strained to look out of the small window in the cabin to see the countryside, but tears welled up in my eyes, temporarily blinding me.
I don’t like to cry in front of people, but I had other reasons for trying to keep my tears at bay. I was afraid of unleashing a storm of emotion at the beginning of a trip that I knew would move me and stir up a host of feelings I had carefully curated and filed away.
A tear finally breached the dam in my eyes, and I could see the raindrops on the cabin window mock me as they mimicked the trail of my tears. I cleaned my glasses, rubbed my eyes, and took a deep breath before jumping into the excited chattering of my mom and her sisters.
This long-awaited trip to Cuba came together miraculously, ostensibly to see the Holy Father on his apostolic visit to Cuba in 2015.
And I did see Pope Francis. We had a private audience. I got the obligatory selfie. It was amazing.
But really, in my heart of hearts, I went so I could go on pilgrimage to the National Basilica Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre. In Spanish, we say “La Basilica Nacional de Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre.
I know…that’s a mouthful in English or Spanish.
Our Lady of Charity is the patroness of Cuba, and a devotion dear to me. I’ve had a deepening love for the Blessed Mother in my adulthood, but it is undeniable that this special devotion to her as Our Lady of Charity began in my childhood in Cuba. I longed to return to the land of my birth. I longed to visit the shrine and see for myself the miraculous statue that informs so much of who I am, and whose I am.
After attending the Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in Holguin, our intrepid little group followed the Pope to El Cobre at the shrine of Our Lady of Charity. When Pope Francis left for the US portion of his trip, we stayed behind enjoying a private tour of the basilica. Our access to the shrine, and even our presence in Cuba, we owed to the invitation of the Bishop of Holguin.
Full disclosure–He’s my uncle.
Our tour began with a walk through the sacristy, where I saw the vestments and vessels that St. Pope John Paul II used when he celebrated Mass in the basilica in 1998. As long as I’m coming clean and making full disclosures, when the rector of the basilica wasn’t looking, I touched the vestments.
Does that make me a third-class relic?
Well. It was special anyway.
When we regrouped in the sanctuary, we were surprised to see the miraculous statue of Our Lady of Charity still on the altar–(normally it is encased in glass high above the altar). My uncle led us in a decade of the Rosary dedicated to our family’s intentions. It was an unexpected blessing in a series of beautiful graces that were showered upon us that week: a papal visit, pilgrimage to the shrine, and now this!
I have written numerous articles about devotion to Our Lady of Charity and included a chapter about her in my first book, My Badass Book of Saints. I asked the rector if I could leave a gift, a copy of this book–a project I had placed in Mary’s hands–and he waved to the altar, encouraging me.
I placed the book at the foot of the altar and retreated shyly to pray in thanksgiving. Little did I know that this experience would be the basis of a book I would write some years later, Our Lady of Charity: How a Cuban Devotion to Mary Helped Me Grow in Faith and Love.
The longing I had carried in my heart–to return to Cuba, to visit the shrine, to reconnect with family, to discover my roots – had been fulfilled in that moment. All this would have been enough–but there was more to come. The next day, back in Holguin, we went to the Cathedral of St. Isidore for a Mass of Thanksgiving for the papal visit and the volunteers who worked selflessly throughout the preparations and visit.
This Mass marked a key moment in the trip for me. I had always assumed that the yearning in my heart was to reconnect with my Cuban-ness. As a Cuban exile, I was raised with romantic stories of a Cuba that doesn’t exist anymore – the Cuba of my parents and grandparents, of idyllic beaches and elegant drawing rooms. The Cuba that lives in my heart and saturates my memory but eludes reality .
I had lived a lifetime of not feeling “American enough” as a naturalized citizen of the United States, while not feeling Cuban enough despite having been born on the island. I feared I didn’t belong in either world, and I recognized a longing within me to belong, somewhere.
Like I said, this Mass marked a key moment for me. During the consecration, when the priest elevated the Host, he held it long after the bells had stopped ringing. In that moment, I experienced complete silence–which is odd, because as is custom in a tropical country, all the doors and windows were open. But as I looked upon the Eucharist, I heard nothing, for a moment. And then, just like that, the sounds of the city were all around us. I could hear the people talk as they passed under the windows. A bicycle bell rang. A truck zoomed by. Laughter filled the air. The city flowed around me, and I realized that our prayers and hymns, and the words of the consecration, had themselves been carried out to the people.
The cathedral was in the center of this town, and Jesus Christ was the heart. A soft breeze blew through the Cathedral, whispering peace into my soul. In that moment, I realized I was home, and had always been home. The restlessness, the loneliness of my exile were now more closely aligned with my yearning for union with the Lord. And just like that, I had traveled hundreds of miles and fifty years into the past to discover a Truth that has always been with me – Jesus in the Eucharist.
Maria Morera Johnson is the author of the award-winning books Super Girls and Halos and My Badass Book of Saints. Her new book Our Lady of Charity, a spiritual memoir, shares stories of how Our Lady of Charity helped her deepen her faith and led her to Jesus after she moved to the United States. Find links to her social media and other writing on the web at mariamjohnson.com