Archbishop of Puerto Rico sees spiritual rebirth after hurricane's wrath

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Roller

By Carol Zimmermann

BALTIMORE (CNS) — Almost two months after the devastating
winds and rains of Hurricane Maria pummeled the island of Puerto Rico, there is
still no clear path to recovery.

Although some power and phone service have been
restored and relief supplies are slowly filtering in, the cleanup and
rebuilding is only just beginning.

go day by day, but it’s overwhelming and traumatic,” said Archbishop
Roberto Gonzalez Nieves of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

archbishop, who attended the U.S. bishops’ fall assembly in Baltimore, is acutely
aware of the storm’s initial and ongoing impact. Since Maria, he has visited 57
parishes in his archdiocese and has 100 more to go. Every parish in this archdiocese in
the northeast corner of the island was impacted by the hurricane from minimal
to extensive damage.

And as
Puerto Rico’s Catholics find their way through the wreckage and mud-soaked
parish buildings and roofless homes while coping with minimal electricity, food
and water, he said they have not lost their faith. For many, their faith has only

and adversities have a way of reinforcing our faith and our sense of spirituality,
our dependency on God,” which also goes hand in hand with an “intensified
spirit of sharing, generosity and solidarity,” he said.

Gonzalez, who lived in Puerto Rico as a child and has led the San Juan Archdiocese
for 18 years, said he has noticed at some recent Masses that “the choirs
continue to sing the hymns they were singing before but with much more vigor
and joy.”

are in a sense being rejuvenated,” he told Catholic News Service Nov. 13.

He isn’t
surprised by the way people are taking care of each other or as he put it — “the
enormous amount of sharing that took place and is still taking place” —
as people make meals for neighbors, for example, on gas-powered stoves.

He also has experienced this care firsthand in the calls and emails — once they could
come through — from other bishops, along with donations and offers of
rebuilding help. At the Baltimore meeting, he said a number of bishops told him:
“We’re with you and we’ll be sending help.”

Gomez and Bishop Herbert A. Bevard of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands — another
region hard hit by Hurricane Maria — were both invited as observers to the bishops’
fall meeting and were introduced by Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo
of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Rico, a U.S. commonwealth, has its own Catholic bishops’ conference and
participates in the Latin American bishops’ council, known as CELAM.

During the
Baltimore gathering, Dominican Sister Donna Markham, president of Catholic
Charities USA, told the bishops that the relief agency had given $2 million in
early November to Father Enrique Camacho, director of Caritas Puerto Rico, the
Catholic Charities affiliate on the island, and she had just presented Bishop
Bevard with $1 million for recovery needs.

The funding
has been distributed for emergency housing, food, water, cleaning supplies,
clothing, bedding, diapers and other baby needs. The agency also has deployed
150 case managers in storm-battered areas to assist people in navigating the
unfamiliar task of seeking assistance.

In an
unscheduled discussion about recent natural disasters at the close of the
bishops’ public session Nov. 14, Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, chair
the U.S. bishop’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, urged
fellow bishops to think of what more could be done to help Puerto Rico. He
wonders if there had been donor fatigue since the hurricane followed other natural

should, as a body, think of how we can help. They are destroyed,” he said.

Gonzalez doesn’t deny the island can use monetary help, but he said it also
needs prayers.

believe in the immense power and efficacy of prayers. We have felt it. I have
felt the impact of so many prayers. They make a difference, ” he said.
“Today we’re still in an emergency mode. We need water, food, clothing,
basic necessities of life. In the long term, we’ll need assistance rebuilding
homes, churches, schools, roofs.”

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Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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