WASHINGTON, D.C. — Bishop Felipe J. Estevez, of the Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida, called on Cubans, on and off the island, to choose forgiveness to help the island nation, during a Sept. 8 homily marking the feast of Cuba’s patron saint, Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre.

As a mother, “La Cachita,” the familiar name Cubans have given to the Virgin Mary as Our Lady of Charity, knows what her children need and she knows “there is something that worries us and that steals our peace, something that saddens us, that distresses us,” said Estevez during an outdoor Mass in Spanish at the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in Miami.

Estevez was one of several U.S. prelates to mark the day, that is special to the Cuban Catholic community and even to Cubans who aren’t Catholic. The Madonna is beloved even among Cuban nonbelievers.

Pope Francis, who visited the island nation in 2015, extended a message to Cubans Sept. 8, saying he placed prayers at the feet of Our Lady of Charity for “the life, dreams, hopes, and sorrows of the Cuban people.” Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel thanked him on Twitter for his wishes.

On Sept. 9, Diaz-Canel met Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley in Havana, The Associated Press reported, but the high-ranking prelate offered no comment on what was discussed or the purpose of his trip.

O’Malley celebrated Mass the day before at the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre near Santiago. The AP report said he met with Cuban scientists working on a coronavirus vaccine and was heading back to the Dominican Republic, Haiti and then the Vatican.

He offered words of comfort to those who gathered at the shrine even as COVID-19 cases in the region were rising.

“The Gospel tells us about the storms on the Sea of Galilee and how Jesus calmed the waves. The Blessed Mother comes to us in times of storm and pain to assure us of God’s loving providence and his constant presence,” said O’Malley in his homily published on the website for the Archdiocese of Santiago, Cuba.

In Miami, Estevez, in his homily, spoke of the pain many have felt at the hands of the communist government and how Our Lady of Charity has listened to their sorrows.

She knows of the pain, frustration, fear, “the pains of an entire people who for more than 62 years have suffered a lack of freedom, of rights, peace, dignity,” he said, referencing the communist rule of Cuba since 1959.

She hears the prayers, he said, and knows them all.

“She knows it and she suffers because she sees it, and because Cubans over there (in Cuba) and here continually ask for prayers… from all the mothers who have lost their children at sea, or (whose children) have crossed the borders to foreign countries… She knows the pain of families who see their children subjected to indoctrination that prevents them from thinking on their own, young people who cannot carry out their goals… parents who see their children emigrate because there is no other possibility for them” on the island, he said.

The bishop also referenced the unrest on the island in mid-July. As COVID-19 hit the island hard, Cubans took to the streets of various major cities and towns to protest lack of food and medicine. One person was reported dead and hundreds were arrested during mass confrontations with authorities and government supporters in various major Cuban cities.

Through the pain, the Cuban patron has been there with her people, the bishop said.

“She has witnessed the repression in the neighborhoods of Cuba, she knows the young people who have disappeared, been mistreated and tortured,” he said. “She knows the pain of the children who today are separated from their parents because they have been disappeared, imprisoned, or are far from home because they are not allowed to return to their country.”

Estevez left post-Revolution Cuba as a teenager with 14,000 other minors brought to the U.S. in the 1960s via Operation Pedro Pan, a program organized by the Catholic Church with the help of the U.S. government. He was homilist for the Mass also celebrated by Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski.

Estevez asked for the intercession of Our Lady of Charity to answer the prayers presented by those gathered on her feast day in Miami “in this open-air Eucharist, in front of a sea that reaches out to kiss the beaches of the island in agony.”

While it’s true that the powerful are arrogant and believe they will go unpunished, Christians must not allow negative feelings to enter their hearts, he said.

“If the heart is full of negative feelings, there is no place for God and God cannot dwell there,” he said.

He acknowledged the pain many Cubans feel but said the Virgin Mary’s prophetic hymn, the Magnificat, reminds the oppressed that God “has thrown down the rulers from their thrones, but lifted the lowly.”

“Our people, who have suffered 62 years of abuses, crimes, injustice and inequity, have risen up to ask ‘when are you going to recognize your errors and sins?'” he said.

Without contrition from those who have caused the hurt, national reconciliation is difficult, but it’s not impossible, he said.

“We have to root out hatred and revenge so that physical and verbal violence, abuse, humiliation, unnecessary suffering, so much indignity, will never again exist in the Cuban nation,” he said.

Even as the powerful continue to follow a path of abuse, crime, repression and injustice, while “forgetting about the people they claim to serve, but who, deep down, they despise… we must forgive, but we must not forget,” he said.

“We can and must hope that one day, justice will be carried out, and that those who have tortured and abused defenseless victims face justice in a serene and fair trial,” he added.

At the shrine in El Cobre, O’Malley spoke of how he had celebrated Mass as a young priest at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington with immigrants, including many Cubans.

“Since then, I have always felt a great affinity with the Cuban people and a special devotion to the Mother of God with the title of Our Lady of Charity,” he said.