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El Sentinel

Puerto Ricans Clamor For Saint In Sad Times

By Matthew Hay Brown

MAY 1, 2002
Copyright © 2002
El Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

CAGUAS, Puerto Rico -- He would have hated the attention, say those who knew the shy, sickly office clerk. Quiet in company, he would turn his face to the ground rather than meet a stranger's eyes.

Carlos Manuel Rodriguez found his joy in nature, spending time with his family, talking with college students about faith and life.

Nearly 40 years after his death, the gentle lay person was the center of noisy devotion this week as supporters continued searching for the one miracle that could bring him sainthood.

The faithful at Dulce Nombre de Jesus cathedral here in his hometown filled every pew and aisle of the cavernous sanctuary, spilling out of every doorway, pooling in Plaza Palmer out front to follow the rare Monday night Mass on the giant television screen trucked in for the occasion.

"Carlos Manuel, our brother, model of holiness," they bellowed, as the island's bishops filed toward an altar flanked by a giant portrait of the gaunt Rodriguez and a red-white-and-blue Puerto Rican flag. "Invite our people to live in the truth. You are an example of life and light in the darkness."

It's been this way throughout the year since Pope John Paul II beatified Rodriguez, setting him on the path that could lead to his becoming the first Caribbean saint. But after the past couple of weeks, the Roman Catholics who dominate religious life in this U.S. territory may need the frail friend they call Beato Charlie more than ever.

For a community confronting allegations that priests here, too, have sexually abused children, the islandwide campaign for his canonization has taken on a deeper poignancy.

"We're looking to a holy man," said Olga Anibarro, a Dulce Nombre parishioner who knew Rodriguez.

His story already is well known here. Born in 1918, Rodriguez struggled with painful ulcerous colitis throughout his short life to share with students and friends a subtle, mystical vision of faith.

"The Catholic life is a tremendous spiritual and supernatural reality," he said. "To be a Christian is to be another Christ, to re-dress oneself as Christ."

At a time when priests celebrated Mass in Latin, Rodriguez argued that the Puerto Rican faithful should be instructed in Spanish. He translated rituals and articles into the vernacular. Concerned that Puerto Ricans were drifting from Catholicism during the island's rapid transformation in the 1950s from an agrarian to an industrial society, he quit his office job to teach liturgy full time at the University Catholic Center in San Juan, forming discussion groups on campuses throughout the island.

Then his colitis turned into cancer. He was 44 when he succumbed in 1963.

"To me, Charlie was a lay person committed to his faith, who lived his life so convinced of what he believed, and who was a living testimony of what an authentic Christian should be," Mother Rosa María Estremera said.

Friends and students continued to meet after his death to discuss his life and ideas. Then came the miracle. Carmen Santana, treasurer of the Carlos M. Rodriguez Circle, was surprised in 1981 to learn that her lymphatic cancer had disappeared inexplicably. Her husband told her he had prayed to their friend Charlie for help.

After a yearslong process, including examinations by physicians and clergy and an ecclesiastic tribunal involving the testimony of 38 witnesses, the Vatican certified the intercession, and in 1999 declared Rodriguez "blessed." More than 2,000 Puerto Ricans flew to Rome for the beatification ceremony in April 2001.

To be a candidate for sainthood, Rodriguez will need another miracle. Supporters have been praying for aid, and the Catholic publication El Visitante has been publishing the results monthly. Members of the circle, leading the campaign, say they have identified three potential miracles.

"Sainthood would be confirmation that he is important for the whole church," said the Rev. Oscar Rivera, who helped to make the case for beatification in Rome. "He is an example not just for Puerto Rico but for the whole world."

Anniversary celebrations for Rodriguez come as the church in Puerto Rico struggles with allegations of sexual abuse by priests against adolescents. San Juan Archbishop Roberto González Nieves has acknowledged current investigations into two separate claims. The bishop of Arecibo has been accused of failing to give proper attention to similar charges made against a pastor currently serving in the town of Florida. The local press has dredged up older complaints against other priests.

"The church lives both sides, the cross and the Resurrection," Caguas Bishop Rubén González Medina said outside the Mass for Rodriguez. "We have been living the way of the cross. But now we have the celebration. Carlos Manuel is like a star in the darkness, and we can see it with clarity."

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