In the photo in her office, she is kneeling down, head bowed as she kisses the visitor’s hand.
She is Dr. Christina Hip-Flores, part-time judge in the Camden Diocese’s Office of the Tribunal. The visitor? Pope Francis.
Hip-Flores was a part of the country’s organizing committee for the pope’s visit to the island Sept. 19-22, just before his trip to the United States.
In a country where the Catholic Church and its faithful have been marginalized and oppressed due to Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution and declaration of an atheist state, Pope Francis’ visit was one of hope for Cuba.
The Holy Father was also instrumental in last year’s dialogue between Cuba and the United States, leading to improved diplomatic relations with the two countries, which included the recent opening of the U.S. embassy there.
Though the pope’s four full days saw him in the cities of Havana and Holguin for Masses and meetings with government officials, priests and seminarians, and youth, Hip-Flores only attended Pope Francis’ visit to the town of Santiago where, on Sept. 21 and 22, he held a vigil and Mass at the Minor Basilica of the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity del Cobre and met with families at Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral before leaving for Washington, D.C.
Working on the protocol committee, Hip-Flores was engaged in transportation logistics, making sure everything went smoothly during the travels of not only Pope Francis and his entourage, but also the pilgrims attending the Mass. She also managed security and safety and the accreditation process.
Hip-Flores is very familiar with the area. Four times a year, she travels there to perform tribunal and secretarial work for the Archdiocese of Santiago and its archbishop, Dionisio Guillermo Garcia Ibanez.
In preparing for Pope Francis in the months leading up to his visit, the church encouraged the faithful to open their homes to visiting pilgrims in a Francis-like act of mercy, she said. Those hosts who couldn’t provide space, instead donated mattresses, sheets or food.
“This act of mercy was a parish-wide, diocesan-wide effort,” she said.
In visiting the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity del Cobre, Pope Francis spoke to the thousands in the sanctuary and outside it who revere the country’s patron saint. Cubans’ veneration of Our Lady of Charity del Cobre dates back to 1612, when three Cuban salt collectors found a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary floating in the Bay of Nipe after a storm, attached to a plank reading “I am the Virgin of Charity.”
“The soul of the Cuban people…was forged amid suffering and privation which could not suppress the faith, that faith which was kept alive thanks to all…who fostered, in the daily life of their homes, the living presence of God, the presence of the Father who liberates, strengthens, heals, grants courage and serves as a sure refuge and the sign of a new resurrection,” Pope Francis told the assembled.
Hip-Flores described the state of the Catholic Church in Cuba as “much like a primitive church”; church communities are spread out across vast territories, and the faithful receive the sacraments sporadically from priests or missionaries.
“A lot of the individuals who heard the pope in Santiago came from rural communities with no church, who meet under a mango tree,” she said.
Pope Francis also encouraged evangelization to the unbaptized, and for those living in the country’s post-Christian culture, she said.
There are signs of improvement for the church. In January, it was announced that the first Catholic Church since the Castro revolution took over in 1950 would be built in the town of Sandino, with more expected elsewhere. An uptick from the 53 percent of Cuba’s 12.7 million residents who consider themselves Catholic is more than possible.
Hip-Flores also helped organize Pope Benedict XVI’s 2012 Cuba visit.
“Each visit had its own dynamic,” she said, adding that Pope Francis’ visit engendered a “national euphoria and excitement.”
She acknowledged that the country and its society, due to the revolution, “need a lot of mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation. There has been a lot of strife, and the separation of families,” either from those families who left their loved ones for a better life, or those families divided by ideological reasons.
“Pope Francis came to announce the message of mercy to the church, and stress the bridges that can be forged,” she said. “
“His message is meant to strengthen the church, and will penetrate every heart the way God intends it to, from the people who work in the government, to those who work in the church, to those who have no faith whatsoever. Everyone was confronted with Pope Francis’ message.”