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The Road To Sainthood; The Pope's Visit To Latin America Has Prompted Hispanics To Hope Many Of Their Heroes Will Be Recognized, Candidates For Canonization Include Puerto Rico’s Carlos Rodriguez


The Road To Sainthood ; The Pope's Visit To Latin America Has Prompted Hispanics To Hope Many Of Their Heroes Will Be Recognized.

Mark I. Pinsky, Sentinel Staff Writer

August 3, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

Carmen Santana spends her days working for a candidate she supports with all her heart, stuffing envelopes with literature, books and videos that promote her hero and encourage others to join her cause.

But the retired chemistry professor in San Juan, Puerto Rico, is not campaigning for a politician. Santana is trying to help a shy, self-effacing office clerk she knew as Charlie Rodriguez, someone she believes interceded with God to save her life, become a saint.

"We have hope," says Santana, treasurer and former president of the Carlos "Charlie" Rodriguez Circle.

Church experts acknowledge that the modern machinery for making saints is so intermingled with luck, timing, travel, money and even foreign policy that it might as well be viewed as a kind of political campaign.

But Santana has good reason to hope Rodriguez will clear the last step in becoming Puerto Rico's first Roman Catholic saint. In recent years, Evangelical Protestants have made inroads among Hispanic Catholics in the Americas, and the church has responded by recognizing Hispanic saints.

On Tuesday in Guatemala City, the pope conferred the halo on Pedro Jose de San Jose Betancur, a 17th-century Spanish missionary who cared for prisoners and abandoned children, making him Central America's first saint.

The next day, in Mexico City, it was the turn of Juan Diego Cuauhtlahtoatzin, an Aztec Indian who had a vision of a brown- skinned Virgin Mary. His canonization made him the first Native American saint in the Western Hemisphere.

From the Caribbean to California, Hispanics such as Santana harbor visions of similar ceremonies for their favorites, including 19th-century Cuban patriot and priest Felix Varela, and 18th- century Spaniard Junipero Serra, a Franciscan missionary.

Varela has a local supporter in Altamonte Springs attorney Antonio Garcia-Crews, who took inspiration from the Cuban priest's biography while himself a political prisoner in Cuba.

"It's very important for Cuba to have Varela canonized," Garcia- Crews says, "and I would love to see it in my lifetime. For me, he is a bridge between my Catholic faith and my patriotic love of Cuba."

The Franciscan missionary Serra, who founded a string of missions the length of California, is, like Rodriguez, a single step away from sainthood.

Twin sisters Cecilia and Mary Preissler, who have turned their Garden Grove, Calif., home into a shrine to Serra, say his time has come.

"I feel that we should be next," says Mary, president of a group much like Santana's.


In the course of his pontificate, John Paul II has named more than 460 saints, considered a modern record. Why so many?

"People need to see that holiness is sanctity available to all," says Bert Ghezzi of Winter Park, author of three books on the subject, the most recent Mystics & Miracles: True Stories of Lives Touched by God.

More than anything else, a saint is an example to the faithful.

"You can be like them," is what the church says when it elevates someone to sainthood, according to Ghezzi.

But even Catholics sometimes misunderstand saints, putting them on a pedestal, both literally and figuratively.

"They're not from another planet," Ghezzi says. "They're not made from some superior genetic substance. They're human beings like you and me."

Each time the Catholic Church chooses to honor someone by bestowing the halo, he says, it sends "a life message."

These messages range from the theological to the explicitly political and ideological. Candidates are recognized depending upon the particular needs of the contemporary church, Ghezzi says. So if priests or nuns or missionaries are needed, those are more likely to be named saints.

If church leaders perceive a period of moral laxity, they may canonize a pious young woman who died defending her virtue.

At other times, when the church is oppressed, martyrs who perished under tyranny or totalitarianism are sainted.

Or, the message may be more direct and political: In 1994, a pregnant woman who chose to die of breast cancer rather than undergo an abortion was canonized.

But without the support of powerful religious orders, lay candidates for sainthood are at a disadvantage.

Supporters of Carlos Rodriguez were wise enough -- or lucky enough -- to begin their effort in 1987, designated the "Year of the Laity" by John Paul II in his drive to involve more lay people in church leadership. They also say they benefited from the support of the Benedictine order; Rodriguez's brother is a retired abbot.

And Hispanics such as Rodriguez, Varela and Serra are considered particularly important now.

Throughout the Americas, the once-dominant Catholic Church has been losing ground to evangelical Protestants and Pentecostals.

In the United States, Hispanic newcomers hang onto the saints of their homelands with the same fervor they reserve for their music and cuisine. For instance, at St. Cecilia's Catholic church in New York City's East Harlem neighborhood, portraits and statues of patron saints from more than a dozen Latin American and Caribbean nations are packed so tightly that there's no more room.


Like politicians, those proposed for sainthood are called "candidates," and their campaigns are called "causes." But before they are awarded halos, they must pass through three increasingly rigorous levels of scrutiny: veneration, beatification and canonization.

In order to be named venerable, a candidate must have lived a life of "heroic virtue." Anyone can initiate a cause, sometimes with a single letter of recommendation to a local priest or bishop, based on a reputation for sanctity and holiness. For a candidate to be beatified, a miracle must be attributed to the candidate. In practice, that means that an individual comes forward to testify that he or she asked the candidate to intercede with God for a particular request -- almost always to cure a serious illness. A second miracle is required before a candidate can be canonized.

There are exceptions, however. At the discretion of the pope, martyrs may be canonized without documented miracles. And, if the pope chooses, he can dispense with the miracle requirements altogether.

Miracle claims are first studied by a local tribunal of clergy, which examines medical records and sometimes takes testimony from doctors when a cure is involved. If the tribunal finds no natural or scientific explanation for the recovery, the file is sent to the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which further investigates the claims before making a recommendation to the pope.

For example, doctors could find no explanation when Santana was pronounced cured of lymphatic cancer in 1981. But she had no doubt; it was because, without her knowledge, her husband -- a physician -- had called on Charlie, whom she knew in life as a friend and a teacher.

A Boston oncologist consulted by the Santanas after the initial diagnosis in Puerto Rico examined a new set of X-rays, and asked her if she believed in miracles. She said she did and, as she left the clinic, she recalls feeling "a very bright light."

Santana, 66, says the miracle does not seem illogical to her, recalling something Rodriguez had told her years ago: "Charlie used to say that, if a person cannot reconcile science and religion, it is because he is not a good scientist, or because he's not religious."

It was Santana's cure -- otherwise inexplicable -- that moved Rodriguez from venerable to beatified.

But miracles are not the only hurdles to sainthood. John Paul II has introduced a new element to the sainthood equation: his worldwide traveling schedule.

John Paul II likes to announce the advancement of sainthood candidates when he visits the places where they lived, a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, as it was in Guatemala and Mexico this week.

Asked by a New York Times reporter why the pope was visiting Guatemala and Mexico, but not the United States, a Vatican official quipped that the pontiff would make an immediate detour -- "if you can come up with an American to canonize."

Yet even before a canonization, a papal visit to a candidate's birthplace or grave can signal that the Vatican has begun to put its imprimatur on the cause. Of course, things on the papal itinerary have not always gone smoothly.

In the past few weeks, there was criticism about the Mexico City canonization of Juan Diego, some of it from within the church itself, questioning whether he even existed.

The Rev. Stafford Poole, an American priest, has written one book about Diego's iconic vision, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and has another on the way. In the new book, The Guadalupe Controversies in Mexico, he calls the canonization "a sad and tawdry spectacle that does little service to the church's mission and credibility."

Despite this criticism, Juan Diego's canonization went forward. Vatican observers agree that the pope wanted a Native American saint, and that this was the one.

In some cases, the expected announcements of impending sainthood are put off, either because of controversy or for unexplained reasons.

In 1987, when the pope announced plans to visit Carmel, Calif., where Junipero Serra is buried, it was widely believed that John Paul II would announce Serra's beatification. A Serra miracle had recently been approved by the Vatican.

But Native American groups said that California Indians had suffered and died in large numbers under Serra's mission system, and they threatened to protest any beatification ceremonies.

So the pope gave an inspirational talk about missionaries and evangelism near Serra's tomb in Carmel, but the beatification did not take place for another year. And when it happened, it happened in Rome.

In January of 1998, when the pope made his historic visit to Cuba, the pontiff paused to visit the 6-foot marble tomb of Varela outside the University of Havana's Grand Hall. The timing seemed perfect for John Paul to declare Varela venerable, but it didn't happen, and the Vatican provided no explanation.

Nonetheless, the pontiff used the occasion to send a very clear signal, based on Varela's "life message."

The 19th-century priest, the pope said, "was the first to speak of independence in this land," and "he also spoke of democracy, judging it to be the political project best in keeping with human nature."

With Fidel Castro in the audience, John Paul said that Varela's "attitude towards one's country is one which even today should illuminate all Cubans," because it was inspired "by a profound Christian spirituality."

Sure enough, the pope's visit bore fruit. Within the last year, a grass roots effort, dubbed the "Varela Project," has emerged to bring democracy to Cuba.


Critics say it's no coincidence that would-be saints are called "candidates." A debate has raged for more than two decades, since Pope John Paul II began to use the canonization process more than any previous pontiff, about whether the process of making saints has become more political than religious.

Although the process is not a race -- because every candidate can ultimately "win" -- experts say it is definitely competitive.

"A lot depends on how organized the people are in pushing for the candidate," says the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of the Catholic magazine America.

"There is a lot of work involved in the process," he says. "Things like research, gathering papers, interviewing witnesses, writing biographies, preparing the documents to be submitted, getting people to pray for a miracle, etc.

"All this has to be done and done right, because if you don't do it according to the correct form, you have to do it all over. This is one reason religious orders are fairly successful in getting their candidates through. Also essential is the support of the local bishop."

As important as the local bishop is, experts say, it is also critical to build a grass-roots network of support. Foundations and local clubs such as Carmen Santana's must raise money and do much of the detail work required to document a candidate's sanctity and to sustain the drive. These efforts include lobbying for everything from postage stamps and statues to papal visits, and naming both public and parochial schools in honor of the candidate.

In the 1980s, the drive to make Junipero Serra a saint seemed to be on the fast track. Then, perhaps because of the controversy over the treatment of Native Americans, the cause seemed to run out of steam after Serra was beatified in 1988.

The Rev. John Vaughn, the former head of the Franciscan order who now leads the Serra drive in the United States, acknowledges that the cause has lost some momentum.

"It's slowed because we haven't presented any strong cases yet," he says. "The time will come."

For such an otherwise obscure candidate, and a layman, Charlie Rodriguez's progress seems headed for a land speed record, if not a celestial one. His cause was initiated in 1987. He was declared venerable in 1997 and beatified in 2001.

None of this surprises Carmen Santana.

"I knew he was a saint," Santana says, "because of the way he loved God, the way he lived. The way he looked at people was saintly. Everybody who knew him said so."

The Road To Sainthood ; Candidates For Canonization Include These 3 Hispanics

Mark I. Pinsky, Sentinel Staff Writer

August 3, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

For hundreds of years, Catholics in the Americas -- especially devout Hispanics -- have had to make do with saints who lived in the Holy Land and Europe.

This has changed dramatically under Pope John Paul II, who has made a point of canonizing exemplary Roman Catholics in the New World. Three of the leading candidates for halos, all Spanish speakers, spent their lives preaching the Gospel in the Caribbean and North America. Here are brief profiles:


Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, known as "Charlie," was born in Caguas, Puerto Rico, in 1918. Since his first communion at the age of 7, he was known for his piety. At 13, Rodriguez was diagnosed with the painful ailment ulcerous colitis, which ultimately developed into cancer and remained with him throughout his life. The disease forced him to drop out of college after one year, but despite his illness he taught himself theology, philosophy and music.

A shy man, Rodriguez was said to come alive when he shared his faith with others, especially college students. He spent most of his small salary as an office worker on church causes. When not at work, he devoted his time to spreading the Gospel, sponsoring conferences on the value of sacrifice. Rodriguez was an early and energetic advocate of worshipping in Spanish, at a time when the Mass was celebrated in Latin.

Ultimately, Rodriguez quit his office job and accepted a position at the University Catholic Center at San Juan, teaching liturgy and later organizing discussion groups across Puerto Rico. Rodriguez helped found a religious order called Sisters of Jesus the Mediator and, for his work in encouraging Catholic worshippers to assist in services, came to be known as the "lay apostle of the liturgical movement." He died at the age of 44 in 1963.

Modern Message: Support for the value and holiness of lay Catholics.

Status: He was proposed for sainthood in 1987, declared venerable in 1997 and beatified in Rome in 2001. Next step is canonization.

Support Bases: Puerto Ricans, New York area, Central Florida.

Miracles: A woman who prayed for intercession was cured of cancer in 1981. Three others are now under investigation.


Best known as the founder of a network of Franciscan missions along the length of California in the 18th century, Serra was born on the Spanish island of Majorca in 1713. After a distinguished career as a university professor, he volunteered for missionary work in Mexico, where for a time he was an officer of the Inquisition.

Humble personally, but intensely ambitious as an evangelist, Serra was known as a fiery and flamboyant preacher. In 1769, he founded the first California mission in San Diego and, in 1776, another at San Juan Capistrano. In the decades that followed, he founded and planned more missions -- each, by tradition, one day's walk apart. Serra, who was lame, died in 1784.

Serra was proposed for sainthood in 1934 and pronounced venerable in 1985, the same year a U.S. postage stamp featuring the priest was issued. But as the cause gained momentum, it attracted controversy.

The Franciscan was accused of mistreating Native Americans, forcing them to convert and remain Christians, and compelling them to build and maintain the missions without pay. However, supporters point out, Serra also lobbied the colonial government to protect his Native American charges from sexual exploitation by Spanish soldiers.

During the mission period, the Indian population in California was decimated, in part as a result of exposure to European diseases.

In 1987, Pope John Paul II was expected to beatify Serra during a visit to Mission San Carlos in Carmel, Calif., where Serra is buried. The pontiff delivered a homily about the importance of missionary work, but observers said that objections from Native American groups caused the Vatican to postpone the beatification until 1988 -- and then to hold the ceremony in Rome.

Modern Message of the Cause: Support for missionary work.

Support Bases: Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, California, Franciscan Order.

Status: He was proposed for sainthood in 1934, declared venerable in 1985 and beatified in 1988. Next step is canonization.

Miracles: A St. Louis nun in a Franciscan order was cured of lupus in 1987. A second miracle is under consideration by the Vatican.


Felix Varela was born to a prominent Havana family in 1787 but spent his early years in St. Augustine before returning to Cuba to attend the seminary. He represented the island in the parliament of Spain -- Cuba's colonial master -- until his opposition to the monarchy forced him to flee to the United States in 1823.

Throughout his life as a priest, professor and journalist, he supported Cuban independence and opposed slavery in the United States. He defended the rights of Irish immigrants in New York and of Native Americans in the West.

Varela was considered a dangerous liberal by Spain's monarchy and by its Catholic hierarchy -- a view shared to some degree by the Vatican at the time. Varela died in St. Augustine in 1853, and when his remains arrived in Havana from St. Augustine in 1911, the local archbishop claimed that he was too busy to formally acknowledge them. Varela's tomb, at the University of Havana, features a plaque declaring the priest a "defender of Cuban liberty."

Modern Message of the Cause: Greater democracy in Cuba.

Support Bases: Cubans, Cuban-Americans, Miami area; Irish Americans, New York area.

Status: He was proposed for sainthood in 1985. In February 1996, a tribunal was convened in Havana to investigate Varela's case sent its findings to the Vatican. A U.S. postage stamp, honoring Varela as a "social reformer," was issued in 1997. Pope John Paul II visited Varela's tomb in January 1998 but did not declare him "venerable."

Miracles: A 6-inch file documenting miracles was sent to the Vatican in November 1998. None has been verified.

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