Poco a Poco: Reflections on Cuba and my Pilgrimage to see Pope Francis

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Crowds gather to hear Pope Francis in Havana, Cuba. PHOTO: Vickie Machado

In September 2015 Vickie Machado took part in the Archdiocese of Miami’s Young Adult Papal Visit to Cuba. Below are some of her personal reflections on faith, the Pope, & pilgrimage that help us appreciate the intersections of religion & nature and religion in the Americas. Her views are her own, we share this as a perspective on religion, not as a statement concerning UFreligion’s opinion and/or views:

We arrived Saturday late morning in La Habana, eager with excitement to take part in Pope Francis’ momentous journey. None of the young adults in my group had been to Cuba. For me, this was not only my first time to the island, but it was also my first real experience outside the country. Though less than an hour’s plane ride from Miami, the country seemed new and untainted.

All eyes were on Cuba, a place devoid of advertisements, saturated with infrastructure from the 1950s, and crawling with news cameras expectantly awaiting the Pope’s arrival. Like the other pilgrims, I was greatly looking forward to seeing Pope Francis and hearing the message he carried with him. 

After checking into our “vintage” hotel, we hit the streets of Vieja Habana, exploring plazas, snapping photos, grabbing lunch at a nearby paladar and purchasing our allotment of Cuban cigars.

The shock set in when we drove to Calle 30 y 31 in Miramar to wait for the Pope’s motorcade. The media was everywhere. 

Everyone wanted to take part in this historic moment. NBC National followed our group, taking photos, filming video and conducting interviews as we waited for a glimpse of the Holy Father. As Pope Francis rode by— a bit faster than expected—the hype increased. The crowd was flooded with energy and the media was quick to start their questioning. Michael Williams of NBC News asked me if this was a life changing experience. With hardly a minute to reflect, I responded that it was definitely life enhancing. It was a less than ideal answer and didn’t make the news. I thought about this question more at dinner and into the night. Do I consider the few seconds it took for the Pope’s caravan to drive by, a life changing moment? 

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The Pope flies by in the “pope-mobile.” PHOTO: Vickie Machado

I continued to ask this question as I listened to his mass Sunday morning in the Plaza de la Revolución packed with thousands of Cubans and other pilgrims. A beautiful Cuban choir led up to his mass. Gaining bits and pieces, the leader of my group, Rosemarie, translated his sermon about the importance of service. Still, I wondered if this was a life-changing experience.

It was the young adult gathering Sunday evening where the magnitude and importance of Pope Francis’ presence and my own journey set in. After distributing rosaries, bracelets and t-shirts, my group found a shady spot under a tree to await the Pope’s arrival. We had plenty of time— arriving at 2:30 pm, four hours before Pope Francis was scheduled to address the crowd. During this time, I started talking with a couple young people, a 26-year-old former bartender and a 20-year-old student studying information technology. They practiced their English while I worked on my Spanish.

I learned a great deal about life in Cuba: jobs, wages, rations, past times, music, and general understandings. Although Cubans make roughly a dollar a day, goods such as cars, clothing, cell phones and travel are still incredibly expensive. $30-92 for shoes. $25,000-250,000 for a car. $200 for a passport. More than once I was told the math used in the States does not apply to Cuba, since one US dollar, translated into one CUC or 25 CUPs (used for purchasing rationed food).

Furthermore, it blew my mind to hear the internet was only recently introduced (my new friend said January 2015!). Still people must go to Wi-Fi (pronounced weefee) spots and pay $2 per hour to gain web access. While change may seem slow to me, it feels rapid among many young Cubans. Pope Francis’ visit further extended this feeling as he has repeatedly voiced his stance concerning the U.S Cuban embargo.

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The author, Vickie Machado (left), speaks with another student during the Pope’s visit to Cuba. PHOTO: Vickie Machado

Talking with these young adults added tremendous depth to my pilgrimage. My journey meant so much more to see the passion in their eyes and understand the hope in their hearts. There was so much joy, love, and kindness in their stories, reflecting the message presented by Pope Francis.

At 6:40 pm, the Pope spoke about hope to the young adult crowd of 5,000. Hope is hard work, but it is worth working for. It is the path of life and deeply within our faith. Meeting my new friends enlivened the Pope’s message. Though this was simply a moment—drawing from Pope Francis—it is memory and discernment, which makes the path of hope that we must follow.

When practicing my Spanish, my new friends told me poco a poco, little by little. Often times we forget that change is a process. We don’t realize a life changing moment when we are in it. Sometimes it takes some reflection and understanding to connect the dots. 

Poco a poco my journey began to make sense and hold a deeper meaning. Yes, seeing the Holy Father was an incredible sight, but it was the context—the young Cubans I met, gaining an understanding of their livelihoods, and connecting it to the Pope’s message to that of my own belief, faith and studies—that carried the most meaning for me.

Like my pilgrimage, life is a journey. It is what we take from these moments that offer the impact. It is exciting to think how people will take this experience and enact it in their own lives, community, and world. The Pope is reiterating the Gospel—love God and love others. Love is an action. In today’s world, faith in action is needed. It’s coming poco a poco.