Thursday, December 17, 2009

St. Lazarus Sanctuary

St Lazarus Sanctuary 

Every December 17th thousands of Cubans expressed their faith to Saint Lazarus by making a pilgrimage to its sanctuary, 20 miles west of Havana.

The shrine of San Lazaro (Saint Lazarus) was built in 1917, and is of such importance that it was included in Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Cuba.

The pilgrims, many of them barefoot, paid tribute to the saint by leaving offerings of flowers, candles, cigars and cash, mostly coins. Some pilgrims go in wheelchairs and some walking on foot. Many of them go with their families.

Many of the pilgrims wear purple, a color associated with the saint who is usually depicted with wounds on his legs and accompanied by several dogs. Some wear clothing made of burlap, the rough fabric used to make sacks for gathering and storing agricultural products.

Amid the throng, those keeping promises to repay the saint for his intervention walked on their knees, crawled or dragged their bodies along the ground over long distances and arrived at the sanctuary exhausted and muddy.

The religious procession has been a long-standing tradition, despite Cuba's only recent acceptance of religion since the revolution. The Cuban government has never banned the annual pilgrimage, although heavy security is usually deployed as past years have attracted dozens of dissidents.

It is well-known that in 1993, a very numerous group of people shouted “Libertad, Libertad” (Freedom, Freedom!) inside the church in the mass offered on the eve of December 17. But for a long time, the shrine of St. Lazarus has been a place where the two sides of Cuba face a silent battle. Dissidents usually take advantage of their safety inside those premises and the actual tolerance of the church. It is a place where the government have to play with more discretion and many times just watch who are the leaders and make those moves. Ultimately, they arrest them outside the perimeter of the sanctuary.

The sanctuary is also a place where you can find any kind of illegal activity: selling candles in the color of the saint, images of Saint Lazarus, and even the succulent sandwich of roasted pork. During that day, El Rincon, the tiny town where the sanctuary is located, comes to life and for a few hours it is the center of the storm of pilgrims, police officers and security agents of any kind, to vanish again by returning to its normal life: a small dead town with a popular landscape.

But every day you go, you will find a few pilgrims paying respect to the saint who is more popular than the Pattern of Cuba: Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre.

It is a place where most Cubans have made the journey at least once in their lives.