.- 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.
“It’s really been an incredible experience,” Buda told CNA on March 29. “Spiritually, it’s been amazing.”
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 Buda’s first time returning to the country where she had been born.
Choking up with emotion as she talked about her visit – which coincided with the 50th anniversary of the day that she and her family fled – she described the experience as “phenomenal.”
Buda initially found out about a pilgrimage opportunity to go to Cuba for the Pope’s 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.
“I was scrounging, looking for it,” 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 “have the opportunity” to go.
Arriving in the country was an emotional experience for Buda, particularly because she landed at José Martí 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 “afraid” and was not sure if she was “emotionally ready” to come back.
At the same time, she was “apprehensive,” fearing that the people may resent her for fleeing.
But her anxiety was quickly eased as she was “embraced” by a people who were “gracious” and “very warm.” 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 “their spirit is incredible.”
“They’re very proud of who they are,” 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, “Don’t forget your heritage. Always be proud that you’re Cuban.”
During her days in Havana, she saw that same spirit that she remembers from the stories that her family used to tell.
“They stayed with me, and now I understand,” she said. “Their spirit keeps them alive.”
At the heart of this spirit, she explained, is a “passion for music and religion.” She described Cubans as “very faithful individuals.”
“Their faith is so important to them,” she said, explaining that it keeps their spirit “intact” in difficult times.
Buda said that she saw how the Cuban “spirit comes alive” throughout her trip. She said that she talked to numerous individuals who are “seeking some sort of transformation.”
She also noted that the Pope’s 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 “incredible.”
“It can’t get any better than that,” 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 “desperate need of change.”
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 pontiff’s visit will inspire a transformation in the country, Buda responded, “Absolutely,” adding that she had met numerous people who asked her for prayers.
“They want change, and they want it badly,” she said. “It’s time.”