SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba — When the Miami Air charter plane touched the ground March 26, applause and shouts of "Thanks be to God" rang out in the cabin, and Julia Malcolm had tears on her face.
It was Malcolm's first time back in Cuba since leaving 51 years ago.
"I am crying but now; I am very happy that we will be with the pope and, like him, will kiss the ground," said Malcolm, a member of St. John the Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Malcolm's charter flight was part of a pilgrimage organized by the Archdiocese of Miami. More than 300 pilgrims traveled first to Santiago de Cuba, then on to Havana. At least 500 others from the archdiocese were expected to join them in Havana.
"I am so proud of what they have done in getting everything organized for this pilgrimage, because the pope is coming; otherwise I would not have come," Malcolm said.
Julia Palmer of Kentucky accompanied Malcolm, her mother. Palmer said she and her two sisters wanted to seize the opportunity of the pope's visit to bring their mother back to Cuba.
"This is a trip of a lifetime, to see Cuba through the eyes of my mother," she said.
After landing, the several hundred U.S. pilgrims were treated to a surprise: They had a chance to visit the historic Shrine of Our Lady of El Cobre, about 30 miles away. The Virgin of Charity of El Cobre is Cuba's patroness.
Archbishop Patrick Pinder of Nassau, Bahamas, said he was impressed with the condition of the shrine and the local Cubans he encountered there.
"I was impressed with how well it was maintained," Archbishop Pinder said, noting he has been in Cuba before, but never Santiago de Cuba or El Cobre.
"It is not falling apart like ... so many buildings in Havana. It speaks of a certain depth of faith of the people to keep up the church that way.
"It was certainly a place that touches the heart of people," he added. "I don't know any place in the U.S. where people leave their precious personal objects as they do here. There is something authentic about it; it is not overdone as a tourist place, but is a place of pilgrimage to Our Lady."
That afternoon, the Florida pilgrims joined approximately 200,000 others for Pope Benedict XVI's Mass in Antonio Maceo Revolution Square.
In a covered area where the Cuban bishops and priests vested before the Mass, Xiomara Bedoga Ocana, a sacristan at the cathedral in Santiago de Cuba who helped prepare the vestments for the Cuban bishops and visiting clergy, made new friends and prayed with several of the Cuban-American pilgrims.
"With all the difficulties we have had to go through in this country, it is something that we had the visit of two popes," she said, referring to Blessed John Paul II's 1998 visit. "Our faith grows, and it will continue to grow after this."
A very pregnant Myrna Bustamante came with her "pretty much about to be born" Catholic child.
"I might go to the Maternidad at any moment now," she said, referring to the local birthing hospital. "I couldn't go this afternoon because of the heat, but I wouldn't miss this evening's Mass."
"Cubans listening to the pope's words will be blessed, but their hearts will also open up to believe and improve their behavior," said Claudia Arias, a member of a local parish youth group.
Another member of her group, Aimee Echevarria, added, "Those who don't believe will be persuaded to have faith in God and the church, Jesus Christ, and all the saints who can help us."
Omar Cedeno Fernandez, 55, said although he considers himself a true Catholic and Pope Benedict "a conciliator," he would like to hear the pope explain his past links with Nazism.
"Like Benedict, I consider Marxism-Leninism a retrograde ideology that is past its useful phase," said Cedeno. "And so, only the Gospel endures the test of time. I think he can be the mediator between the people of faith and the Cuban government."
Nestor and Lourdes Machado of Coral Gables, Fla., said they met a Cuban Salesian seminarian during the Mass and were impressed with his faith.
"To see the people of Cuba so excited and so spiritual is wonderful," said Nestor Machado. "The fervor of that young seminarian was very touching."
Mary Travis of St. Petersburg, Fla., was beaming near the end of Mass.
"We did it all," she said. "We arrived, were told to follow our guide, the guide got lost and we were left squashed, cheek to jowl, in the crowd, and then we came back out here to watch at a distance," Travis said. "Our senses are filled with the tropical climate here tonight and the joy of the people. And we timed it perfectly to go receive holy Communion; there was a fervor, and we are very touched."
Several U.S. bishops were among the Vatican officials and Cuban prelates concelebrating the Mass.
Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley relished the scene in the square before removing his vestments.
"All of these papal visits are a moving experience, but to have it here in Cuba and on the feast of the Annunciation was very moving," the cardinal said, "I know that Catholics around the world have high hopes for Cuba, and hopefully this will result in greater freedoms for the people of Cuba.
"All the attention that this brings to Cuba is a healthy step toward greater freedoms that the world would wish for Cuba," he said, adding that the papal visit would also increase Cubans' faith.