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Puerto Ricans see link between poverty, hurricane deaths


Catholic News Service


LARES, Puerto Rico  — Hurricane-related deaths in Puerto Rico have been attributed to drowning and illness, but many Puerto Ricans, including local media professionals, see a link between such deaths and poverty.

On a recent tour through Puerto Rico’s central-western mountains, Catholic News Service found several people voicing support for this opinion. Read more »

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Much of Puerto Rico still has no power, aid distribution facing obstacles


By Catholic News Service

CAGUAS, Puerto Rico — The only way a military veteran who works for the Diocese of Caguas could get a message out from Puerto Rico to contacts elsewhere illustrates conditions in Puerto Rico nearly three weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall on the island Sept. 20.

Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves of San Juan, Puerto Rico, speaks during an Oct. 10 news conference in San Juan. The Catholic Church in Puerto Rico announced that it has already helped at least 50,000 affected by the Hurricane Maria with food and clothes. (CNS photo/Jorge Muniz, EPA)

“He sent the email from his car in the mountains, the only place where he can charge his phone and get some periodic reception,” reported Joe Boland, vice president of mission at Chicago-based Catholic Extension.

He got word from the veteran “that they have armed guards at gas stations. Communications and transportation are still a mess,” Boland said in an email sent to Catholic News Service in Washington Oct. 10.

After surviving the devastation wrought by Maria, Bishop Eusebio Ramos Morales of Caguas finally reached a functioning land line at one of his parishes and the first phone call he made was to Catholic Extension.

The bishop reached Boland and described the island of 3.4 million people as being in a total state of chaos. He said the Catholic Church was paralyzed due to the inability for anyone to travel or communicate. He reached out, hoping that Catholic Extension could help in some way.

A week after Maria hit, Catholic Extension was able to send $325,000 in relief funds for the six dioceses of Puerto Rico, with another $25,000 going to the U.S. Virgin Islands, which were hit by hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Catholic Extension is a national fundraising organization that helps build churches and supports church ministries and other efforts in U.S. home missions. It has had a decades-long relationship with Puerto Rico. It first assisted the Archdiocese of San Juan with a church-building project in 1908.

“Catholic Extension is once again stepping forward to assist Catholic churches in need, continuing its century long mission of building faith, inspiring hope and igniting change,” said Chicago Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, chancellor of Catholic Extension, in a statement. “Chicagoans once again have a reason to be proud that Catholic Extension has its roots here.”

Other agencies that have provided aid include Catholic Charities USA, which sent $1 million in emergency aid to Caritas Puerto Rico, and the Knights of Columbus, which has sent $100,000 in aid.

As of Oct. 10, just 16 percent of electricity service had been restored. At an Oct. 6 news conference, Gov. Ricardo A. Rossello told reporters officials expected to have 25 percent of the electrical system restored “within the next month.” About 67 percent of cellphone towers remained down.

      Most Puerto Ricans are still struggling to get basic necessities — food, water, fuel, medicine, currency — and several relief organizations continue to face obstacles getting aid to those who need it most because of fuel shortages, and a majority of the roads are in ruins. The New York Times reported that only 392 miles of the 5,073 miles of the island’s roads are open.

At least 43 people have died as a result of the hurricane; officials said that number could rise as communication systems improve.

Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves of San Juan announced at a news conference Oct. 10 that the Catholic Church in Puerto Rico has already helped at least 50,000 affected by the Hurricane Maria with food and clothes.

A few days after the hurricane hit, Archbishop Gonzalez’s staff sent an email to Catholic Extension at his request with a subject line that said: “WE WILL RISE!” It asked for help to “lift our diocesan infrastructure and (support) the parishes with the biggest damage.”

Catholic Extension said it has been “extraordinarily difficult for the Puerto Rican bishops and diocesan leaders to communicate with us, because provisional cellphone towers are only located in certain places and only function during certain hours. It is even hard for them to communicate with one another because many roads are still blocked or ripped up due to mudslides, and gasoline is nearly impossible to procure.”

As a result, it has been difficult for dioceses to assess the extent of damage to church property.

Beyond the obstacles to getting around to assess property damage in Puerto Rico’s six dioceses has been the challenge of getting the Catholic Church on the island “up and running again without having any sources of income for the foreseeable future — paying staff, keeping the lights on, and maintaining operations,” as well as “dealing with the humanitarian crisis” that is ongoing in terms of “feeding and sheltering people.”

Catholic Extension said it will help with the rebuilding and repairing of churches destroyed or damaged by Hurricane Maria, but, the statement said, that “will be a priority down the road.”

The organization is accepting donations at www.catholicextension.org/give/hurricane-support, with the amount to be matched dollar by dollar by some of Catholic Extension’s longtime donors.

Health care workers continue to sound the alarm about dire conditions and countless numbers of residents they say are still in desperate need of assistance.

Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said 16,000 federal and military assets are on the ground in Puerto Rico and about 350,000 Puerto Ricans have registered so far in the FEMA system to receive financial assistance.

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A week after surviving hurricane, Puerto Ricans beg for help


More than a week after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, much of the island remained without communication and in desperate need of humanitarian aid.

A woman carries bottles of water and food during a distribution of relief items Sept. 24 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, days after Hurricane Maria. (CNS photo/Alvin Baez, Reuters)

News programs have been broadcasting about long lines of travelers, who have little food or water, and are desperate to get off the island at the San Juan airport to no avail. 

But the scene of destruction outside the airport is even more stark: An island whose dense tropical landscape, along with its infrastructure, towns and cities, has been greatly stripped by winds that reached 155 mph.

Catholic Church groups have mobilized to send help. Some organizations, however, have reported problems mobilizing the aid out of airports and into the places and people who need them.

Officials say Hurricane Maria left 16 dead in Puerto Rico, 27 dead in Dominica and one in the U.S. Virgin Islands. But accurate information has been hard to come by since cellphone service and electricity, along with access to water and fuel, have been knocked out. Many roads into rural areas still are blocked by debris, making it difficult to access those who live there.

Many Puerto Ricans in the mainland U.S. have been making desperate pleas on social media to see if others can give them information about relatives or conditions in town or cities where their relatives live but which remain without communication.

President Donald Trump is set to visit Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory of 3.4 million, as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands on Oct. 3. He has largely been criticized for what some perceive as a slow humanitarian response and for spending time tweeting against athletes as Puerto Rico suffered. But when he got around to tweeting about the island’s misery, he also offended many by bringing up its debt, including debt to Wall Street, as well as the island’s pre-existing failing infrastructure.

It took a week for the U.S. to send a plane carrying 3,500 pounds of water as well as food and other supplies to the island, but the president said, “It’s on an island in the middle of the ocean. … You can’t just drive your trucks there from other states.” A hospital ship also has been sent.

Scarcity of food, water and fuel is rampant. The deaths of two patients in intensive care at a San Juan hospital were blamed on lack of fuel.

On Sept. 27, the Trump administration said it would not waive shipping restrictions to get fuel and supplies to island, angering politicians such as U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who asked the Department of Homeland Security to waive the restrictions known as the Jones Act.

Many, such as New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, are in the meantime offering Masses as well collecting donations to help in a long recovery ahead for Puerto Rico.

Cardinal Dolan will celebrate a Mass in Spanish at St. Patrick’s Cathedral Oct. 8, to “express prayerful solidarity with the people of Puerto Rico and Mexico, and their relatives and friends in New York, in the wake of the natural disasters that have ravaged both lands this month,” according to an article in the archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic New York.

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Jesuit in Puerto Rico calls hurricane damage ‘apocalyptic’


Catholic News Service

It took a couple of days for Jesuit Father Flavio Bravo to venture out and survey the devastation of Hurricane Maria, with its torrential rain and winds of 155 miles per hour, inflicted for hours on the island of Puerto Rico.

Wind from Hurricane Maria bent this iron cross Sept. 20 on top of a tower at the entrance of the Jesuit Colegio San Ignacio de Loyola in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The deadly hurricane plowed into Puerto Rico Sept. 20 with winds up to 155-miles-per-hour. (CNS photo/courtesy Jesuit Father Flavio Bravo)

“We were trapped,” because of debris, said Father Bravo, the superior of the Society of Jesus’ Puerto Rico community, recounting the initial aftermath of the hurricane on the island. When Father Bravo finally managed to get outside, the scene was nothing short of “apocalyptic,” he said during a Sept. 22 telephone interview with Catholic News Service.

In what was once a lush forest, the palm trees that are still standing look more like telephone poles because they have no leaves on them. Before Maria, it was hard to see anything past the dense tropical foliage, and now “you can see all along.” Seeing the fallen trees, “it is brutal,” Father Bravo said.

But what was most shocking, said Father Bravo, was the sight of the cross at the entrance of Colegio San Ignacio de Loyola, the secondary school the Jesuits operate on the island: The 6-foot-5-inch cross was bent into a 45-degree angle by the hurricane’s forceful winds and now looks almost like a sword planted on the cement post.

“It was a sight that touched me. But that cross invites me to think: What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I do for Christ?” Father Bravo said, citing part of the Jesuits’ Spiritual Exercises. “It was a message of destruction but also of reconstruction.”

Puerto Rico, as well as other places affected by September’s back-to-back hurricanes, first Irma and now Maria, has a long way to go before life returns to normal.

Father Bravo said the aftermath has left a pile of emotions and thoughts almost as high as the debris: sadness, desperation from lack of communication, the poor who already were suffering will now suffer more, wanting to help but not knowing where to begin. It feels daunting, he said.

Those who have been able to free themselves from damaged buildings and homes are out looking for neighbors, family, making sure everyone is OK.

“There isn’t a sense of panic, but (rather) sadness. … You don’t know how to console, or be consoled” because there’s so much destruction all around, he said.

Puerto Rico, which already was experiencing economic problems because of huge debt due to mismanagement, had an infrastructure with massive problems before the hurricanes arrived. The economy already was weak, people were leaving the island behind and with it, family, because of the financial problems. And now those who had little, have nothing, Father Bravo said.

“It’s an avalanche of disasters, one disaster after another disaster,” he said.

One of Father Bravo’s tasks is to repair the damage done to the Jesuit school, which educates more than 600 in San Juan, and which already had suffered damage from Hurricane Irma. Electricity will not return for a long time, he said, maybe four to six months. There is a lot of broken glass, damages to buildings, and debris to clear.

And yet, he said, the feeling he hangs onto is of gratitude to God, gratitude to those who are thinking about those who are suffering on the island and other places, gratitude for those who have been moved with compassion, gratitude for those who have helped and want to help, and gratitude for those “who have not allowed us to feel the emptiness,” he said. Even in the midst of tragedy, “we are seeking the greater glory of God,” said Father Bravo. The Society of Jesus in Puerto Rico wants to offer its thanks for the help and support it will take to raise, in the middle of an aftermath, a path of hope to face the future ahead.

The website for the Jesuit’s province lists a link for donations at jesuitscentralsouthern.org to help with recovery efforts.


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Catholics in Puerto Rico deal with Hurricane Maria’s wrath


Catholic News Service

Authorities say it may take months for electricity to fully return to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria pummeled the island and its infrastructure as it made landfall Sept. 20.

People walk in a flooded street Sept. 21 in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. (CNS photo/Thais Llorca, EPA)

When the hurricane hit the island with winds of up to 155 miles per hour, it tore out cables, roofs from homes and buildings, uprooted palm trees and even bent a cross anchored to a cement post at the entrance of a Jesuit school.

It has been difficult to communicate with the those on the island, said Capuchin Franciscan Father Urbano Vasquez, of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Washington, who studied in Puerto Rico and has vast ties to the island. He has been trying to communicate, to no avail, with a community of Poor Clares in Cidra, Puerto Rico, and others he knows on the island, but phone service is hit or miss.

Father Vasquez, however, was able to make contact with a group of seven Capuchin Franciscan friars after the hurricane passed. They took refuge from the storm in Trujillo Alto, about 10 minutes from Old San Juan.

“They were scared because it was the first time they’ve been through something like that,” said Father Vasquez. “They spent the time praying or near the Eucharist” as winds tore through part of the roof near a chapel in the building at Centro Capuchino. Some later sent him videos of the winds whistling through the streets, images taken from a cracked window in an arched entrance door.

The entrance door to the friary caved in, he said, leaving no path for the friars to make their way to the main street. But even if they could get out to the street, authorities have put a curfew in place, afraid citizens could come in contact with fallen cables and other objects that could pose danger on the ground.

The friars told him of the devastation they could see from inside, he said, including fallen palm trees and blocked roads. A parishioner sent him photos of debris, such as torn and battered traffic lights left behind by Maria’s wrath.

Capuchin Franciscan Father Carlos Reyes, in a Sept. 21 phone interview with Catholic News Service, said he didn’t sleep through the harrowing night he spent listening to Hurricane Maria barrel through San Juan.

“I spent the night praying,” he said, and listening to the radio was the only way to hear what was happening in Puerto Rico and the world. He heard about the earthquake in Mexico and in the middle of his own experience with nature’s wrath, he prayed for the earthquake’s victims.

Water crept in at one point and the friars were doing their best to keep it out of the residence. The only way to live through such an experience is with faith and thinking about safety, he said. Authorities tried to drive the urgent message that Hurricane Maria was no joke and many listened, he said.

“The message was to save life, not the material,” he said. “You can reconstruct structures, but not life.”

Father Reyes, originally from El Salvador, said he has lived through strong earthquakes and their damage sometimes affects a centralized area, but Hurricane Maria tore through an entire island.

As of Sept. 22, at least 15 people were killed in Puerto Rico, and 14 deaths were reported on the island nation of Dominica. Two others were killed in the French territory of Guadeloupe and one on the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged Catholics to respond with prayer and other help “in this time of great need for our brothers and sisters in harm’s way, many of whom have been hit repeatedly by the successive hurricanes.”

In a Sept. 22 statement, he noted the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Maria were visited on Puerto Rico and elsewhere in the Caribbean “just as we begin to assess the material and emotional damage of hurricanes Harvey and Irma.”

Cardinal DiNardo said: “Casting aside any temptation to despair, and full of hope in the loving providence of God, we pray that our Father may receive unto his loving presence those who have lost their lives, may he comfort the grieving, and may he fortify the courage and resilience of those whose lives have been uprooted by these disasters. May he extend the might of his right hand and bid the sea be quiet and still (Mark 4:39).”

Most of Puerto Rico remained without communication and little information had been gathered about conditions. “Our telecommunications system is partially down,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello told the news agency CNN Sept. 20. “Our energy infrastructure is completely down.”

The Society of Jesus in Puerto Rico posted on a website a message and a photo of a cross bent by the hurricane’s wind, but which is still anchored to a tower at Colegio San Ignacio de Loyola in San Juan, a Jesuit, college-preparatory school that the order operates on the island’s capital city.

“With gratitude, we have learned that the Jesuits, faculty and staff are safe,” said the message from Father Flavio Bravo, Jesuit superior of his order’s Puerto Rico community. “Communication from the island remains limited, so we await news on our school families and members of our parish.”

On the website jesuitscentralsouthern.org, he posted a link for donations to help with recovery efforts, but much like the Capuchins, it’s too early to take in the enormity of damages.

Father Reyes said the damage to Puerto Rico isn’t just material but also psychological for those who lived through the experience of Hurricane Maria and he worries for the most vulnerable in the population.

“This leaves behind a lot of damage,” he told CNS. “But we hope for goodwill … the worries and necessities are great … but we can learn a lot from these experiences, that we have to find the good among the bad. In the middle of all of this, faith strengthens us.”


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Irma cuts deadly path in Caribbean as church officials prepare response


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Hurricane Irma cut a deadly path through the Caribbean, leveling entire islands as it moved toward Florida Sept. 7, while Haiti prepared for a potential disaster. Read more »

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Puerto Rico archbishop likes bill that helps island’s financial stability


Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Puerto Rico got the legislation it had sought for months when the U.S. Senate adopted a bill that would allow the island’s political and financial leaders to restructure billions of dollars in debt and avoid further defaulting on loan payments.

U.S. President Barack Obama signs into law the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act in Washington June 30. (CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters)

U.S. President Barack Obama signs into law the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act in Washington June 30. (CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters)

Voting June 29, the Senate passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act, PROMESA, 68-30. The House passed PROMESA June 9, 297-127. President Barack Obama has signed the bill into law. The measure calls for establishing a federal oversight board to manage restructuring of the island’s $72 billion debt.

Archbishop Robert Gonzalez Nieves of San Juan, Puerto Rico, welcomed the bill’s passage, saying it will allow the island nation to restructure its debt in an orderly fashion and pre-empts lawsuits from creditors seeking repayment of outstanding loans.

With cascading defaults, “much of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure would have begun to collapse. The government, for example, would have run out of money to pay for police, firefighters, public schools, municipal hospitals,” Archbishop Gonzalez told Catholic News Service in an email.

He said that the establishment of an oversight board does not automatically assure that the debt restructuring process “will be fair.” He pledged that the Catholic Church would “continue to be a voice on behalf of the most vulnerable and poor who are the most impacted by austerity measures.”

The archbishop called for the church also to be a voice encouraging good government, “free of corruption, serving the common good” while promoting economic development and justice for all Puerto Ricans.

Advocacy groups, led by Jubilee USA, for months urged Congress to adopt restructuring legislation.

“This legislation is absolutely essential because we can see no economic growth or reduction in child poverty until the debt is restructured,” explained Eric LeCompte, executive director of Jubilee USA.

He credited the faith community for getting behind the bill to ensure its passage.

“This legislation would not have passed if not for the leadership of the Catholic Church and the leadership of other Christian communities,” he said. “In an election year, it was the religious community that got the issue heard in Congress. We would have not gotten the protection that put Puerto Rican people first and the debt second.”

Puerto Rican government, nongovernmental and religious leaders began to press Congress to secure a restructuring plan after Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla said in mid-2015 that the island’s debt had become unpayable.

Archbishop Gonzalez was among the most vocal proponents of debt restructuring legislation.

In an op-ed in The Hill newspaper June 7, Archbishop Gonzalez wrote that the measure would give “Puerto Rico breathing space so the payment of pensions and social services are made first, before debt payments. The legislation stops exploitative behavior of so-called vulture funds and has a process to bring our debt back to sustainable levels.”

He met with members of Congress and White House staff in September seeking support for a deal that would have saved the island from implementing deeper austerity measures than had already been enacted in essential safety and public health programs for Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million residents.

The crisis began as Puerto Rico endured financial hardships that worsened during the economic recession that began in 2008. In the meantime, the island’s debt was purchased from investors by hedge funds for pennies on the dollar, which then demanded payment in full on the public bonds they hold. Archbishop Gonzalez called such actions immoral and a prime example of the “profit-at-any-cost” form of capitalism decried by Pope Francis.

As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is in a unique situation. It is not governed by the same U.S. bankruptcy laws that pertain to state and local governments and because it is not an independent nation, in cannot approach the International Monetary Fund for assistance.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics listed the island’s unemployment at 11.7 percent in May, down from the peak of 17 percent in May 2010. The island is facing a drain of young adults as thousands make their way for employment to the U.S. mainland. By comparison, average unemployment for May, but reported in June, for the mainland was at 4.7 percent.


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Archbishop calls on Puerto Ricans everywhere to help ‘refound’ their island


Catholic News Service

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Saying his Caribbean island is emptying, dying and disappearing, Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves of San Juan called on Puerto Ricans everywhere to help “refound” their common motherland.

Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves of San Juan, Puerto Rico, is pictured in a late January photo. He has called on Puerto Ricans everywhere to help refound their common motherland. (CNS photo/Wallice J. de la Vega)

Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves of San Juan, Puerto Rico, is pictured in a late January photo. He has called on Puerto Ricans everywhere to help refound their common motherland. (CNS photo/Wallice J. de la Vega)

Speaking at Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies in New York, he was not referring to an actual political move, like founding a country, but to a human sense of unity on behalf to the financially ailing Caribbean island.

Refounding “is a word that Pope Francis likes a lot,” said Archbishop Gonzalez. “He stated this when asked about the re-establishment, or refounding, of the European Union, following the refugee and the euro crises.”

Pope Francis used the term at a May 6 ceremony in Rome, where he received the International Charlemagne Prize from the citizens of Aachen, Germany. Since 1950, the prize has been bestowed on individuals who do “exceptional work performed in the service of European unity.” St. John Paul II was so honored in 2004.

As Europe faces an unprecedented influx of immigrants and refugees and struggles to address continued economic woes, Pope Francis urged the continent to step up to its responsibilities with renewed hope.

During his speech, Archbishop Gonzalez proposed the start of a dialogue among all Puerto Ricans.

“We Puerto Ricans are not united,” he said. “We are very divided and polarized; we are not united, we are stuck. … In that sense, our motherland’s refounding effort can become a project for the creation of such necessary unity all ‘boricuas’ (Puerto Ricans) long for.”

Puerto Rican communities on both sides of the Atlantic have been divided mostly along political lines regarding the island’s current financial crisis — including how it should be resolved — and the territory’s political relationship with the U.S. Both issues are intertwined.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said June 14 that the Senate would consider a financial package for Puerto Rico by the end of June. On June 9, the House June 9 approved the measure, which would allow U.S. formation of a control board to manage Puerto Rico’s financial affairs.

The move has been widely opposed locally, but some politicians and pro-statehood advocates have argued for it. Archbishop Gonzalez is a supporter.

“I support the current legislation because it gives Puerto Rico breathing space — so the payment of pensions and social services are made first, before debt payments,” he wrote in a commentary published June 7 in Washington’s The Hill newspaper.

Archbishop Gonzalez’s commentary also made indirect reference to the fact that holders of Puerto Rico bonds have been considered the local people’s enemies because of their push to get paid even under dire circumstances.

“In full disclosure, my Catholic Archdiocese of San Juan is also a creditor,” he said. “Many of the island’s faith groups that continue to call to bring the debt to sustainable levels own Puerto Rico bonds. … For the most part, we are not dealing with a situation of bad people, we are all victims of a bad situation.”

Puerto Rico’s financial crisis became inadvertently tied to its political status in a U.S. Supreme Court case dealing with the dual sovereignty doctrine, whereby a person can be tried by more than one state for the same crime despite double-jeopardy provisions. In its June 9 decision, the high court said “U.S. territories, including an earlier incarnation of Puerto Rico itself (as a Spanish colony), are not sovereigns distinct from the United States.”

The 6-2 decision reaffirmed that, despite its small degree of sovereignty and having a U.S.-approved constitution, “Puerto Rico cannot benefit from the dual-sovereignty doctrine.” The decision’s practical effect is a reminder that the island does not have the rights of a sovereign entity or a state. In addition, the high court June 13 ruled Puerto Rico cannot restructure more than $20 million in public debt, which is the debt of its financially ailing public utilities.

The early June clash of Puerto Rico finances and politics, fueled by the start of the local political elections campaigns, has intensified the local social debate. Angry discussion waged on the airwaves and public places is common, further fragmenting the population into ideological camps.

Given its timing, Archbishop Gonzalez’s New York speech seemed prophetic.

“I am sorry to say it … but the reality,” he said, “is that we are regressing on things economic, political, social, in tolerance values, in the ability to give, to live together.”

The archbishop mentioned several “justifications” for refounding Puerto Rico, including:

  • A social situation that encompasses poverty, migration and unemployment, and a financial crisis with a stagnant economy.
  • A Puerto Rican identity crisis owing to more than 500 years of colonial status.
  • A political crisis with a population divided between wanting full sovereignty or statehood, and a spiritual crisis manifested by a loss of values.

“I suggest using Pope John XXIII’s ‘Pacem in Terris’ (‘Peace on Earth’) encyclical principles and pillars as a guide for the island’s refounding,” Archbishop Gonzalez said.

Pope John’s document deals mostly with the order between human beings, the relationship between the people and the “public powers”; the relationship among the political communities; and the relationship among individuals, families, political associations and communities on the one hand and the global community on the other.

In “conforming to the church’s social teaching,” the archbishop added common good, solidarity and ecology as additional refounding pillars.

“Please see this visitation of a control board on our island as a wake-up call,” wrote Archbishop Gonzalez in The Hill. “Whether you favor independence, statehood or a type of free association with the United States, the time is now for our people to begin a process to resolve the status of our homeland. We are the only ones who can protect our identity and dignity.”

He closed his call to unity along Pope Francis lines.

“Without mercy to be received, without mercy to be given, without mercy to be expected, the motherland will never be refounded,” he said. “A political or governmental body without mercy risks ignoring its citizens’ misery.”

— By Wallice J. de la Vega


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Bishop warns that popular Puerto Rican Marian devotion is not approved


SABANA GRANDE, Puerto Rico — Although followers of a popular devotion centered on Our Lady of the Rosary were cheerfully celebrating being allowed to attend a public Mass, the bishop planning to celebrate the liturgy warned that their practices continue to be unrecognized by the church.

Members of the Our Lady of the Spring Devotee Association celebrate in 2013 the 60th anniversary of the supposed apparitions of Mary in Sabana Grande, Puerto Rico in 1953. (CNS photo/Wallice J. de la Vega)

Members of the Our Lady of the Spring Devotee Association celebrate in 2013 the 60th anniversary of the supposed apparitions of Mary in Sabana Grande, Puerto Rico in 1953. (CNS photo/Wallice J. de la Vega)

The group, calling itself Our Lady of the Rosary of the Spring Devotee Association, announced May 2 that Mayaguez Bishop Alvaro Corrada del Rio was “inviting all devotees of the Virgin of the Spring to a Mass that will make history in Puerto Rico.” The group’s press release suggested the bishop was celebrating Mass May 22 specifically as a prelude to the devotees’ anniversary pilgrimage to the Marian shrine in the Rincon area of this southwestern municipality.

The name “Virgin of the Spring” is a popular identifier adopted by devotees after Mary’s supposed apparitions at a spring-puddle in Sabana Grande in 1953. The group maintains that several students from a nearby grade school reported seeing “a beautiful young lady” floating on a cloud above a spring that provided water to the school.

The diocese has said that it has not found the apparent visions as supernatural in nature and has advised the faithful to avoid affiliating with the association.

Local newspapers published the press release May 4 under headlines suggesting that the Mass was specifically for the devotees and that Bishop Corrada was ending his distance from the group. The headlines spurred a social media outbreak, speculating about a policy change on the church’s part.

Ricardo Ramos Pesquera, association president, told Catholic News Service, “We wrote Bishop Corrada requesting to be allowed at the 10 o’’clock Mass, and it was the bishop’s initiative not only to allow us there, but also to say the Mass and preach himself.”

The Mayaguez diocese quickly clarified the church’s position regarding the association in an advance copy of a letter from Bishop Corrada to CNS that was read at all Masses the weekend of May 7-8 and published May 9 by El Visitante, newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Juan.

In the letter, Bishop Corrada acknowledged the devotees’ request and his wish to celebrate Mass “”to continue the dialogue I proposed to them in my clarifying letter of September 2014, which I reaffirm.” But he also wrote: “I am going to Sabana Grande as this diocese’s bishop, responding to my pastoral duty to look after a group of Catholic faithful who request the holy Mass; not to celebrate their anniversary.”

He clarified that he will be in Sabana Grande to celebrate the feast of the Holy Trinity. The letter reminded the faithful that there has been no change in the church’s stance regarding the association and its mission and that the 1987 decree dissolving the association remains in force. The bishop also encouraged diocesan and religious order priests not to participate in activities related to the spring and that any priests who celebrates Mass there would be automatically suspended from ministry.

The supposed Marian apparitions at the Sabana Grande Spring lasted from April 23 to May 25, 1953. Hundreds of thousands of faithful from across Puerto Rico packed a sugar cane field near the spring. Several people reported miraculous recoveries from serious illnesses and physical handicaps.

After two ecclesial investigations, one by the Diocese of Ponce, to which the Sabana Grande parish belonged in 1953, and the other by the Diocese of Mayaguez in 1986, the results were “uniformly negative” and that reports of the apparitions lacked credibility.

The Marian devotion at the spring continued low-key until 1978, when Juan Angel Collado Pinto, one of the children who claimed to see Mary, announced that she had given him a series of messages for the world. At that time, he offered the first message; the most recent, the sixth, was pronounced 2008.

By 1980, a group of devotees had formed, with Collado at the helm, drawing people from throughout the island, including high profile figures from the arts, politics and show business. The resulting association legally incorporated in 1985 as Our Lady of the Spring Mission based in San Juan.

A year later, the mission was approved as a private association by the Puerto Rican bishops’ conference, but specifically without juridic personality, or legal recognition under canon law. However, that approval was vacated in 1987, when the bishops’ conference determined that “from the beginning, the association did not feel bound to the terms and interpretation of the (approval) decree.”

Catholic canon law provides that properly recognized private associations of faithful can receive juridic personality “through a formal decree of the competent ecclesiastical authority” and “are subject to the vigilance of ecclesiastical authority.”

Ramos told CNS his association has “international juridic personality,” being recognized by several bishops in other countries. Church documents available as public records reveal that the association never received juridic personality from its home diocese.

One important problem between the diocese and the devotee association has been the group’s use of several names, including “Association Pro Devotion to the Virgin of the Rosary of the Spring,” an identification they had requested and was denied by the diocese in 1987.

The relationship between the church and the association worsened when the group entered into a mega-project, dubbed The Mystical Mount, to build a resort-type center atop a mountain near the spring.

“That’s what brought them down,” Father Edgardo Acosta Ocasio, diocesan communications director, told CNS. “With time all this was distorted; outside people taking over, new interests created … local humble people, elders, the real devotees — in numbers and quality — saw all this turning into a business and into a corrupted religious element.”

Father Acosta, a native of Sabana Grande, said the distortion was part of a “more serious situation, both on the doctrinal and moral aspect.” Eventually, he said, the church determined no sacrament could be celebrated there, and the association could not be recognized as a Catholic organization.

The association’s image took another turn down in 2005, when claims of divergent practices — among these physical, psychological and sexual abuse — originally surfaced from former “disciples” of Collado.

Father Acosta said the church never opposed the individual, private devotion to the Virgin of the Rosary of the Spring, “especially praying rosary in the manner the church practices it.”

He referred to a 1987 CEP letter to local bishops stating, “every private apparition has a subjective character, hence it cannot be expected to be a teaching for the whole people of God.”

Father Acosta described as “a complex thing” the tension between the diocese and the devotee association.

“Bishop was trying, once again, because he did it before, to cool down tensions of the past,” he said about the association’s recent press release. “As a ‘sabeneno’ (Sabana Grande native), it would be an honor, a reason to be jubilant, if Our Lady had appeared there … but in this case the information has been manipulated.”

— By Wallice de la Vega


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