Tiny pa­tron saint a po­tent sym­bol on iso­lated na­tion

The Washington Times Daily - - World - BY AN­DREA RO­DRIGUEZ

EL CO­BRE, CUBA | She’s 400 years old and stands just over a foot tall, but the pe­tite wooden statue housed in a small-town church in east­ern Cuba is among the most pow­er­ful Catholic icons in the world, and an ob­ject of pride and rev­er­ence for hun­dreds of thou­sands of is­land faith­ful.

The Vir­gin of Char­ity of Co­bre is also re­spon­si­ble, at least par­tially, for per­suad­ing Pope Bene­dict XVI to make Cuba the sec­ond stop on his Latin Amer­ica tour, de­spite the fact this com­mu­nist-run is­land is the least ob­ser­vantly Catholic coun­try in the re­gion and that it re­ceived a pa­pal visit just 14 years ago.

The Vat­i­can has said Bene­dict is mak­ing the trip to honor the quadri­cen­ten­nial of the ap­pear­ance of the diminu­tive relic in what Catholics be­lieve was a mir­a­cle.

Ac­cord­ing to church lore, two indige­nous la­bor­ers and an African slave who had set sail on an old boat in search of salt were sur­prised to find a statue of the Vir­gin Mary atop a wooden ta­ble float­ing above the frothy waves in the Bay of Nipe in 1615.

In her arms she car­ried a smaller fig­ure of the baby Je­sus. The church says the board was in­scribed with the words “I am the Vir­gin of Char­ity,” and that the men were amazed to dis­cover that the statue’s cloak and other gar­ments were com­pletely dry.

Over the cen­turies, Cubans of many faiths — in­clud­ing the AfroCuban San­te­ria re­li­gion — be­gan to pray to the statue, drawn to the par­tic­i­pa­tion of the slave Juan Moreno in the dis­cov­ery story. San­te­ria be­liev­ers call the statue “Ochun,” the god­dess of fe­male sen­su­al­ity and ma­ter­nity.

“She is the mother of all Cubans,” said En­rique Lopez Oliva, a pro­fes­sor of re­li­gious his­tory at the Univer­sity of Ha­vana. “She is the one who will never aban­don her chil­dren, what­ever they are and what­ever they be­lieve.”

As the statue’s leg­end grew, so did the chapel that housed it. To­day, it is a lovely ivory-col­ored church with soar­ing red domes nes­tled in the shadow of the Sierra Maes­tra moun­tains, some­what in­con­gru­ous in the back­wa­ter of Co­bre.

One corner of the church is ded­i­cated to of­fer­ings left for the Vir­gin, in­clud­ing vo­tives and thou­sands of hand­writ­ten notes in which pil­grims tell her their dreams and im­plore her to make them real.

In 1916, the Vat­i­can of­fi­cially de­clared the Vir­gin the pa­tron of Cuba.

Decades later, Ernest Hem­ing­way di­rected that the gold medal he re­ceived upon win­ning the 1954 No­bel Prize for lit­er­a­ture be laid at the statue’s feet as a thank you to the Cuban peo­ple for in­spir­ing such works as “The Old Man and the Sea.” It re­mains there to this day.

In 1998, Pope John Paul II also vis­ited the statue, plac­ing a golden crown upon her head.

With Bene­dict’s visit im­mi­nent, the com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment an­nounced over the week­end that the Vir­gin had been de­clared a na­tional mon­u­ment that is “part of the iden­tity of the Cuban peo­ple.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The Vir­gin of Char­ity of Co­bre, among the most pow­er­ful Catholic icons in the world, helped bring Pope Bene­dict XVI to Cuba, where he will cel­e­brate Masses in San­ti­ago and Ha­vana.

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