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Church’s only Puerto Rican cardinal dies

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Cardinal Luis Aponte Martinez, the second Puerto Rican to be ordained a bishop and the only Puerto Rican cardinal, died April 10 at Hospital Espanol Auxilio Mutuo in San Juan after a long illness. He was 89.

The head of the San Juan Archdiocese for nearly 30 years, he retired in 1999. Cardinal Aponte participated in the two 1978 conclaves that elected Pope John Paul I and Blessed John Paul II, but he was already over 80 and ineligible to vote by the time Pope Benedict XVI was chosen.

Puerto Rican Gov. Luis Fortuno declared five days of official mourning for the cardinal, who died on the 62nd anniversary of his priestly ordination.

Cardinal Luis Aponte Martinez, the second Puerto Rican to be ordained a bishop and the only Puerto Rican cardinal, died April 10 at Hospital Espanol Auxilio Mutuo in San Juan after a long illness. He was 89. (CNS/Catholic Press Photo)

“His wide priestly and pastoral work leaves a rich spiritual legacy, not only for the Catholic faithful, but also for all men of good will,” the governor said in a statement. “The cardinal captivated all who knew him; he reached, by his loyalty to God and his church, the highest place in the Catholic Church in Puerto Rico.”

Pope Benedict XVI expressed his condolences to the cardinal’s family and the people of Puerto Rico in a telegram sent to San Juan Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves. The Vatican released the text of the message April 11.

The pope said he was “profoundly saddened” by the death of the cardinal, who endured his illness “with great serenity.”

“I join everyone in commending to the mercy of the heavenly Father this zealous pastor who served his people with such charity and simplicity,” the pope said. The late cardinal had “participated in the Second Vatican Council, implementing its provisions” in the Archdiocese of San Juan and giving “witness to his great love for God and the church, as well as his great dedication to the cause of the Gospel.”

After the cardinal’s body is taken to churches in Lajas, San German, Ponce and Santurce to permit local Catholics to pay their respects, his funeral Mass was to take place at 3 p.m., April 16 in the Cathedral of Old San Juan. Cardinal Carlos Amigo Vallejo, retired archbishop of Seville, Spain, was expected to preside, with the Puerto Rican bishops and the apostolic delegate in Puerto Rico concelebrating.

Cardinal Aponte’s death leaves the College of Cardinals with 210 members, 123 of whom are under the age of 80.

Born Aug. 4, 1922, in Lajas, Puerto Rico, the eighth of 18 children, he studied at the Minor Seminary of San Ildefonso in Old San Juan, then at St. John’s Seminary in Boston and St. Leo College in Florida, where he earned a doctorate in law.

He was ordained to the priesthood April 10, 1950, and was involved in parish ministry until he became secretary to the bishop of Ponce in 1955. He also served as vice chancellor, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools and chaplain of the Puerto Rican National Guard.

Pope John XXIII named him as auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Ponce July 23, 1960.

When he was ordained a bishop later that year by Cardinal Francis J. Spellman of New York, he was the second native Puerto Rican to be made a bishop; the first was Bishop Juan Alejo Arizmendi de La Torre, who died in 1814.

On April 16, 1963, he was named coadjutor bishop of Ponce, with the right of succession. He became bishop of Ponce when his predecessor resigned later that year; he was installed Feb. 22, 1964.

Promoted to archbishop of San Juan Nov. 15, 1964, he was installed in that post Jan. 15, 1965. Pope Paul VI named him a cardinal in 1973.

As a bishop, he attended the first, third and fourth sessions of the Second Vatican Council. Following the council he created the Episcopal Conference of Puerto Rico in 1965, serving as its president until 1982.

In a 1993 interview, Cardinal Aponte said Puerto Rico — the smallest of the Greater Antilles, located 1,000 miles southeast of Miami — lives in two worlds.

Economically and politically, Puerto Rico’s existence thrives with its status as a U.S. commonwealth. But culturally and spiritually, the church in Puerto Rico belongs to Latin America.

“Puerto Rico’s status, both legally and ecclesiastically, is singular, unique,” he said. “Politically, we belong to the United States, but our culture is completely Latin American.”

As an example of how the island is in between worlds, he said it was because of the large number of U.S. visitors that Puerto Rico recently adopted the policy of receiving Communion in the hand.

On the other hand, he added, Latin America’s liberation theology had not had a major effect on the church in Puerto Rico because of the island’s economic position being much better in general than the rest of Latin America and markedly better than the rest of the Caribbean islands.

Cardinal Aponte said the biggest problem faced by the church in Puerto Rico was one affecting Hispanics in the United States as well — aggressive moves by Protestant sects to recruit Spanish-speaking Catholics.

“Up until now, our approach has been very tolerant,” he said. “But these sects — especially Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pentecostals — have no sense of ecumenism here, making our dealings with them almost impossible.

“We are now actively alerting people about them and emphasizing a catechesis that teaches the differences,” the cardinal added. “Ours is an interior faith based on conviction and conversion, not emotions.”

Cardinal Aponte was a member of the first extraordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 1969; the third general assembly of the Latin American bishops’ council, known as CELAM, in Puebla, Mexico in 1979; the fourth general assembly of CELAM in 1992 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; and the special assembly for America of the world Synod of Bishops in 1997. He also served as president of CELAM’s Economic Committee from 1972 to 1983.

In the 1993 interview, he said he had seen the Puerto Rican church grow over the years, both in number of parishes and vocations and in the knowledge of what it means to be Catholic.

“Undoubtedly, Catholics today have a much better understanding of their Catholicism,” Cardinal Aponte said. And that’s where he saw the future of the Hispanic church.

“If we convince every lay man and woman of their participation in the new evangelization,” he said, “our future can only be bright.”