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In 1612 a small statue of Mary was discovered by three fishermen in Cuba’s Bay of Nipe. The figure was completely dry and floated toward their boat on a board inscribed with the words, “I am the Virgin of Charity.” Archbishop Dionisio García Ibáñez of Santiago, Cuba, president of the Cuban bishops’ conference, wants the world to remember that event during the 400th anniversary celebration for Our Lady of Charity and the Basilica Sanctuary of the Virgin of Charity in El Cobre in 2012.

Accompanied by Auxiliary Bishop Octavio Cisneros of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Mario Paredes, chairman of the board of the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders, the archbishop traveled to several major U.S. cities to meet with Cuban-Americans and church leaders. On Feb. 21 they stopped at America House in New York. Promoting the anniversary, the archbishop also sought to raise awareness of the changes taking place in Cuba. Although there is a long history of persecution of the church by the Communist government, the archbishop said conditions for Catholics have improved. “There is a better understanding of religion in Cuba,” he said. “But it’s not easy; it is a process.”

Archbishop García said that the role of the church as a mediator in Cuba is an increasingly significant one and that the church strives to embody the goals set out by the Cuban National Ecclesial Encounter in 1986—to be a prayerful, incarnated missionary church. “We have been an isolated society for a long time, so a slow process is required to lead us to face new realities in society and the world,” he said.

Archbishop García hopes the anniversary will inspire a global pilgrimage next year to El Cobre. The sanctuary hosts thousands of pilgrims annually, concentrated around the feast of the Virgin of Charity, Sept. 8. Most of those visitors come from within Cuba. This year, however, with the recently announced loosening of U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba for religious purposes and the end in 2010 of limits on how often Cuban-Americans may visit family in Cuba, the anniversary could see an increase in the number of U.S. pilgrims.

Archbishop García noted that one slogan for the anniversary year is “Charity unites us,” a reference to both the patron and the virtue. He said that most Cubans, Catholic or not, have a statue of Our Lady of Charity in their home. “Our Lady of Charity is not only for Catholics,” he said. “She is a symbol in the nation. People see in Our Lady something positive and good. She has entered into our history and culture.”

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