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Irma cuts deadly path in Caribbean as church officials prepare response

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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

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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.

 

Follow Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski.

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

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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

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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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