MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Nearly 200 local Catholics from South Florida left for Cuba Friday morning on what's described as a trip of a lifetime.
The delegation from the Archdiocese of Miami flew out of Miami International Airport and into Havana ahead of the visit by Pope Francis this weekend.
The trip is both a spiritual and humanitarian mission, with many bringing needed medical supplies.
"I am dying to see the Holy Father. He is so inspirational, he's a beautiful soul," said Cookie Gazitua.
The pilgrims will be in Cuba for four days and they will visit several churches and La Plaza de la Revolución, where the pope will hold a Sunday morning open-air Mass. He'll also visit the eastern cities of Holguin and Santiago.
This is a mission fueled by excitement and hope.
"This is an exciting day and I'm anxious to get there and get my camera out and take my own pictures and my own videos, " said Thomas Abraham.
The trip is also a chance for many to deepen their religious roots and return, in some instances, to their homeland, which has been off limits for many for more than 54 years until the recent thawing of relations between Cuba and the United States. For others, it's a very personal journey.
"I'm hoping for very spiritual things to happen," said one traveler.
"I'm very excited and I'm basically going because Pope Francis is a good friend and I love seeing him," said Father Pat.
One son is proud to escort his mother back to her homeland where she hasn't visited in decades and now courageously battles pancreatic cancer. "There's a lot of excitement and I think at the same time we're very hopeful for this trip and for the ability to go back together. My mom hasn't gone back for 46 years. For many reasons, this is a very emotional trip," said Felice Gorordo.
The leader of the flock, Archbishop Thomas Wenski, was looking forward to the first stop in Havana.
"Ya know in the United States I'll see him also but in the United States there will be about 400 bishops, in Cuba there's about a dozen so where do you think I'll have a better seat."
This was a flight that many said they waited a lifetime for and at the last minute, Cookie Gazitua received her late arriving visa. "I got it, I got it, I got it," Cookie happily squealed.
The Pope will arrive in Cuba on Saturday around 4pm. During his trip will meet with Cuba's president and its priests, its young and its sick, its churchgoers and its seminarians as he travels around the island starting Saturday.
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