Cuban-Americans in South Florida are returning to their homeland to participate in the Pope's visit to Cuba.

Two flights departed for Santiago de Cuba from Miami International Airport on Monday morning. Travelers are expected to spend 15 hours in Cuba, where the papal mass will take place at 6:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

On Sunday, Cuban-American parishioners of La Ermita de la Caridad in Miami gathered after mass in anticipation of the Pope's upcoming trip to their homeland.

Pope Benedict the 16th is on his way to Cuba, marking the first time the leader of the Catholic faith has traveled to the country since Pope John Paul II in 1998. "I think this Pope's visit to Cuba will mark a before and after in the history of our country," said Margarita Cuervo.

Papal Visit to Latin America

Cuervo is one of over 300 Cuban-Americans from the Miami area that will make the pilgrimage to Cuba, lead by Archbishop Thomas Wenski. Many of the people making the trip have not been back to Cuba since they left over 50 years ago. Cuervo will be there to greet the pontiff in Santiago and is treating the trip like a religious missionary visit. 

"They gave us rosaries, we're going to be taking rosaries," said Cuervo. "They said something like 16,000 rosaries to be distributed in Cuba."

As Cuervo packs for her trip, Cuba is preparing for the Pope's arrival. Posters bearing el Papa's face are already on display. "Pope Benedict the 16th is a holy man, he's a man of prayer, the holy spirit guides him, guide his words," said Cuervo.

In Mexico this past weekend, the Pope arrived to cheering crowds and celebrated outdoor mass to more than 300,000 with words of hope. 

"All the Cubans are waiting for the Pope so we are really happy," said Rafaela Ochoa, a parishioner of La Ermita de la Caridad. "I would like to be there but I'm going to be there in my heart, just watching the screen."

Crackdown on Dissidents Precedes Pope's Arrival in Cuba

The people of Cuba are likely to hang onto every word the Pope says during his visit, but those in the Cuban government may be rubbed the wrong way. Pope Benedict the 16th has already spoken harshly about the long running communist government. 

"His message will be received in the hearts of the long suffering people in Cuba that have been fighting for so long for human rights, democracy, freedom," said Cuervo. "He is not afraid, he will speak like a prophet. He will speak with a strong voice, the truth."

"The Pope wants to influence the future of Cuba and he wants that Cuba to have a future of hope," said Archbishop Thomas Wenski.

Many of those traveling to Cuba on the trip are taking their personal belongings to be distributed to the Cuban people.

Pope Benedict the 16th will be in Cuba until Wednesday.

All of the papal events will be broadcast at La Ermita de la Caridad and several other catholic churches in the Miami-Dade County area for those not making the religious pilgrimage.

For more go to wsvn.com

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