When I was living in Louisiana several years ago, I had the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to Puerto Rico with a group of about 40 people and 2 priests. A big part of that amazing spiritual journey involved getting to know Carlos M. Rodriguez, “Charlie”, who is the is the first Puerto Rican to be declared “Blessed” by the Church.
In November of 1918, Carlos Manuel Cecilio Rodriguez was born in Caguas, Puerto Rico – a large town in a valley encircled by mountains. He was the second of five children in a tight-knit Catholic family. He endured a great hardship already by the age of six, when a fire destroyed not only his father’s small-goods store but also their family home. Yet, that fire that took nearly all the family’s earthly possessions is credited with helping Charlie discover his love for spiritual things. He would often say, “The Lord shall provide…we’ll see.” I love that he “played Mass” with his sisters, just like my brother and did I when we were young.
At the age of thirteen, he attempted to protect his infant cousin from a neighbor’s vicious dog — the stress of which is believed to have triggered his lifelong affliction with Ulcerative Colitis. Suffering continuously with an “upset stomach”(as he would call it) it often interfered with his schooling and his desire to serve God as a priest; still, he never lost his good-natured disposition and was a brillant student. Not allowing his health issues to hold him back, he educated himself in all subjects, including music – even learning to play sacred music on the piano and organ.
Traveling in his hometown of Caguas, this Servant of God came to life for me and my fellow Pilgrims as we heard stories about him–even from his sister. There were many things about Blessed Charlie that I really admire and connect with, most especially that he is considered the “Joyful Lay Apostle”. He was an ordinary lay person who loved to make people happy, had a deep love for God and His Church, and spent everyday doing Christ’s work with joy.
Visiting the Cathedral where he was baptized and his remains are now kept, Cathedral Dulce Nombre de Jesús (Sweet Name of Jesus), I discovered his love for Christ and His Resurrection through his celebratory approach to the Easter vigil. “VIVIMOS PARA ESA NOCHE ” or “we live for this night” he would say.
“To approach Carlos Manuel and to getting to know him was as if to approach a light that illuminated one’s perspective of life and its meaning. His glance and smile revealed the certain joy of Easter. An enormous spiritual strength transcended his fragile physical constitution. The firm conviction of his faith allowed him to overcome his natural shyness, and he spoke with assurance resembling Saint Peter’s on Pentecost. Despite his failing health for so many years, no complaints ever clouded the joy with which he faced life. He reminded us that the Christian must be joyful because he or she lives the joy and hope that Christ gave with His Resurrection,” according to The Vatican.
With a deep love for the Liturgy, Charlie wanted to encourage a better and fuller participation in what he felt were the treasures of the Church. Knowing that many students can lose their faith during the latter part of their schooling, he spent most of his short life focused on that mission. He taught CCD, led discussion clubs and Liturgical Circles, and published “Liturgical and Christian Culture” — spending much of his own money to fund these efforts.
I remember seeing the only pair of (worn out) shoes he owned as an adult, and it was evident that he did not care about possessions or making money. As was the custom, we left notes with our petitions by his shoes, asking Charlie for prayers.
In July of 1963, at the age of 44, he lost his battle to intestinal Cancer. “It rains when a saint dies,” the old saying goes. On that Saturday when his brother, a Benedictine Priest, celebrated his funeral Mass, the sun was bright and clear. “Its heat beat down on the little Puerto Rican church where the hope of the Resurrection was preached for one who lived the joy of Easter. The funeral of Carlos Rodriguez closed with a sudden rainstorm that almost halted the burial.” (Source: Faces of Holiness: Modern Saints in Photos and Words by Ann Ball).
In these times, it brings hope to see what people may have simply considered a shy, sickly man do so much good. Blessed Charlie, pray for us!