.- For Alina Buda, a recent pilgrimage to Cuba was not only a chance to see the Pope but an opportunity to reconnect with the country of her birth.
âItâs really been an incredible experience,â Buda told CNA on March 29. âSpiritually, itâs been amazing.â
Buda, who lives in River Vale, N.J., fled Cuba with her family in 1962. She was only two years old at the time and has no memory of the country.
A recent 6-day trip to Havana marked Budaâs first time returning to the country where she had been born.
Choking up with emotion as she talked about her visit â which coincided with the 50th anniversary of the day that she and her family fled â she described the experience as âphenomenal.â
Buda initially found out about a pilgrimage opportunity to go to Cuba for the Popeâs March 26-28 visit through a fellow parent at the local Catholic school.
While she was immediately eager to participate, there was a good chance that she would not be able to go. With the trip just three weeks away, she was required to present her Cuban passport, which she had not seen for years and was not sure that she could still locate.
âI was scrounging, looking for it,â she said.
Although she did find the passport, she was left with a short amount of time to submit a visa application and have it processed.
In the end, the visa was approved in time, and Buda said that she felt blessed just to âhave the opportunityâ to go.
Arriving in the country was an emotional experience for Buda, particularly because she landed at JosÃ© MartÃ International Airport, the same airport that her family had fled from 50 years ago.
Not sure what to expect, she said that she had been âafraidâ and was not sure if she was âemotionally readyâ to come back.
At the same time, she was âapprehensive,â fearing that the people may resent her for fleeing.
But her anxiety was quickly eased as she was âembracedâ by a people who were âgraciousâ and âvery warm.â By the end of the trip, she had even decided that she wants to come back with her husband, who is American, and her 15-year-old son.
As Buda got to know the people of Cuba, she found that âtheir spirit is incredible.â
âTheyâre very proud of who they are,â she said.
Growing up in a Cuban family in the U.S., Buda can relate to that spirit. She explained that her parents had always told her, âDonât forget your heritage. Always be proud that youâre Cuban.â
During her days in Havana, she saw that same spirit that she remembers from the stories that her family used to tell.
âThey stayed with me, and now I understand,â she said. âTheir spirit keeps them alive.â
At the heart of this spirit, she explained, is a âpassion for music and religion.â She described Cubans as âvery faithful individuals.â
âTheir faith is so important to them,â she said, explaining that it keeps their spirit âintactâ in difficult times.
Buda said that she saw how the Cuban âspirit comes aliveâ throughout her trip. She said that she talked to numerous individuals who are âseeking some sort of transformation.â
She also noted that the Popeâs comments on change during a March 28 Mass in Havana drew hushed applause from the crowd.
Buda had seen the Pope at a public Mass in Rome two years ago. However, she said, this was different. She described the experience of seeing the Pope being welcomed in her homeland as âincredible.â
âIt canât get any better than that,â she said, adding that it was also amazing to be able to receive the Eucharist at the Papal Mass.
One of the most touching moments for Buda came at the end of the Mass, as someone in the crowd yelled out to the Pope, asking him not to leave, but to stay with the Cuban people and bring change.
As the individual was quickly hushed, Buda said that she started crying, deeply aware that her native land is in âdesperate need of change.â
During his visit, Pope Benedict emphasized the need for spiritual renewal in order to bring about peaceful change in society.
Asked if she believes that the pontiffâs visit will inspire a transformation in the country, Buda responded, âAbsolutely,â adding that she had met numerous people who asked her for prayers.
âThey want change, and they want it badly,â she said. âItâs time.â