With His People

Archbishop Gonzalez goes home as head of San Juan Archdiocese


Archbishop Gonzalez goes home as head of San Juan Archdiocese


In a ceremony filled with pomp and high spirits that electrified the island of Puerto Rico, Archbishop Roberto O. Gonzalez Nieves, O.F.M., was made Archbishop of San Juan, looking every bit the humble Franciscan pastor who won the hearts of his Bronx parishioners more than a decade ago.

After entering the historic City of Old San Juan, whose walls were built by Spaniards centuries ago, Archbishop Gonzalez, 48, was welcomed at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist by Cardinal Luis Aponte Martinez, who is retiring at age 76 after heading the archdiocese since 1964.

Church and political dignitaries were in attendance at the May 8 ceremonies, and people from all social and economic backgrounds lined the streets, waving Puerto Rican flags and papal flags. Signs and colorful banners hung from windows and were carried by adults and children. All appeared captivated by the quiet charisma of the youthful new archbishop.

Archbishop Gonzalez' appointment to San Juan by Pope John Paul II was announced March 26. He had served since 1997 as Bishop of Corpus Christi, Texas, after two years as coadjutor bishop.

In the cheering crowds were contingents from the New York Archdiocese, including 20 priests from the Franciscans' Holy Name Province, of which Archbishop Gonzalez is a member, and parishioners from Holy Cross parish in the Bronx, where he was pastor for two years in the 1980s. Franciscan friars and lay persons also came from Boston, Mass., where the new archbishop served as an auxiliary bishop from 1988 to 1995.

Representing the U.S. hierarchy were three cardinals--James A. Hickey of Washington, D.C.; Anthony J. Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, Pa., and Bernard F. Law of Boston. Archbishop Patrick F. Flores of San Antonio led a contingent of bishops from Texas.

Cardinal Jaime L. Ortega y Alamino of Havana, Cuba, was present.

Archbishop Francois Bacque, apostolic delegate for Puerto Rico, also attended, along with many other bishops from Central America and the Caribbean.

During the ceremony, the new archbishop received the miter and the crosier, symbols of his office to rule and care for his flock as a shepherd.

Throughout the San Juan ceremonies Archbishop Gonzalez was acknowledged as a home-grown Puerto Rican with deep ties to the island and its people. He was born in Elizabeth, N.J., to Puerto Rican parents, who later moved the family back to the island and now live in San Juan. He attended elementary school in Santurce, Puerto Rico, before entering the high school seminary of the Franciscans in Callicoon and attending Siena College in Loudonville.

Cardinal Aponte Martinez said during the investiture in the cathedral that the ceremony marked the first time a Puerto Rican archbishop handed the see to another Puerto Rican archbishop.

Archbishop Gonzalez said, "The Puerto Rican identity is found in the heart and runs through the veins. I am proud to be Puerto Rican."

After the ceremony, the new archbishop was presented with a lamb, a symbol of Jesus, the lamb of God, and of the capital city. He led a procession to a public plaza nearby, a former military barracks, where thousands could be accommodated for his first celebration of Mass as archbishop.

In his homily, Archbishop Gonzalez expressed the immediate concerns of his episcopate. He called for a halt to military exercises near populated areas conducted by the U.S. Army on the island of Vieques, off the coast of Puerto Rico, and asked the government to protect the quest for national identity of Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. commonwealth. He vowed to defend the poor and the downtrodden, as well as to work for the civil and human rights of all people. He blasted corruption, calling it a crime.

He identified strong family structures as key to the life of the Church and society.

"I offer my help free of all political party consideration and with absolute respect to our citizens' quest for human dignity and a better life," he said.

"His homily was brilliant," said Deacon Guillermo P. Romagosa of the Bronx, who served the Mass. "He touched on the main issues, particularly the Church in Puerto Rico and its identity, and the identity of Puerto Rico as having a people and a culture, even though it is not juridically a nation."

Deacon Romagosa, coordinator for Spanish-speaking candidates for the Permanent Diaconate Office of the New York Archdiocese, also served the Masses in which the new archbishop was ordained a priest in 1977 in Holy Cross Church in the Bronx and an auxiliary bishop in Boston in 1988.

In San Juan, Deacon Romagosa said, "The priests were very, very open. In the beginning, I think they were cautious because they did not know who the new archbishop was. But when they heard him speak, they knew they had a great bishop."

Maria Guarracino, Cardinal O'Connor's special assistant for women's concerns, watched the installation ceremony on the Archdiocese of San Juan's television station, then attended the outdoor Mass.

"It was such a colorful event," said Mrs. Guarracino, who was born in Puerto Rico. "Cannons went off when the archbishop reached the plaza. This will be a marvelous time for all of Puerto Rico."

The Archdiocese of San Juan comprises the northeast portion of the island and has about 890,000 Catholics in a population of 1.23 million.

Parts of the island were devastated late last year by Hurricane Mitch, which swept across the Caribbean.

Father John M. Felice, O.F.M., provincial minister of the Holy Name Province based in Manhattan, called the investiture ceremony "a splendid affair."

He told CNY, "This is a really joyful and exciting time for the Puerto Rican people. Roberto is really a kind and gentle soul and they are thrilled that he is there to serve their community."

Also attending the ceremonies were the Mayor of San Juan, Sila Calderon; Secretary of State Norma Burgos; Carlos Romero Barcelo, resident commissioner, and representatives of Puerto Rico's Senate, Assembly and Supreme Court. Gov. Pedro Rosello was out of the country.

The proceedings were broadcast on several television and radio stations throughout the island. Those who were present and those who listened were treated not only to a religious ceremony but a family affair. At the many celebrations, Archbishop Gonzalez was accompanied by his father, Jesus, his mother, Frances, his brothers and sisters and 21 nephews and nieces. Archbishop Gonzalez is the eldest of nine children.

The ceremonies were attended by representatives from other Christian denominations, and the new archbishop indicated in his homily that he will work with other Christian churches in pursuing the common good in Puerto Rican society.

Archbishop Gonzalez outlined plans for implementing the New Evangelization called for by the pope. This involves not only reaching out to non-Catholics but re-evangelizing those who are already associated with the Church, he said. He spoke of the importance of maintaining a strong Church presence in society and of plans for promoting vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

He has developed extensive relationships with the bishops of Latin America, having served as chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Hispanic Affairs and most recently as chairman of the bishops' Committee on the Church in Latin America.

Although it is politically associated with the United States, Puerto Rico has its own bishops' conference and participates in the Latin American bishops' council, known as CELAM.

In the New York Archdiocese from 1982 until 1988, the new archbishop was director of pastoral research for the Northeast Pastoral Center for Hispanics (now the Northeast Hispanic Catholic Center). He published the results of a study, "The Hispanic Catholic in the United States: A Socio-Cultural and Religious Profile." He holds a doctorate in sociology from Fordham University.

Archbishop Gonzalez was ordained to the priesthood on May 8, 1977, in Holy Cross Church, where he served from 1982 to 1988, the last two years as pastor. He served at St. Pius V parish in the Bronx from 1977 until 1982.

In July 1988 he was appointed an auxiliary bishop of Boston, where he had a special ministry to Hispanic people.


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