An Apostle of the Paschal Mystery: Blessed Carlos Manuel Rodriguez Santiago

This July, the Church marks the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of Bl. Carlos Manuel Cecilio Rodriguez de Santiago. A layman and apostle of liturgical renewal who was beatified by Bl. John Paul II in 2001, he is a model of dedicated service and untiring commitment to prayer. Bl. Carlos is most especially honored as a man whose entire life was a celebration of the Paschal Mystery.

His Story

Carlos was born in Caguas, Puerto Rico, on November 22, 1918. The second of five children, two of his sisters married, while another became a Carmelite nun. His brother became a Benedictine monk and, later, was the first Puerto Rican to serve as an abbot. After a fire destroyed his family’s store and small home, they lived with Carlos’ maternal grandmother, who had great influence over the spiritual development of her grandchildren.

Carlos began attending a Catholic school in Caguas when he was six years old,. Educated by the Sisters of Notre Dame, and greatly influenced by the Redemptorist Fathers, he was a pious child and showed a particular interest in religion. Carlos went on to study at a public high school, but his studies were soon interrupted by the first symptoms of ulcerative colitis, a severe gastrointestinal disorder that would plague him for the rest of his life. In 1934, he returned to school, attending Perpetual Help Academy in San Juan, renewing contact with his beloved Redemptorists and Notre Dame Sisters. Because of his delicate health, his schooling was often interrupted and he did not complete high school until 1939.

In 1946, Carlos enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico. While his health prevented him from completing his degree, he retained his love of learning. “Charlie,” as he was known, was a voracious reader and he enjoyed a variety of subjects, ranging from science to the arts to, of course, philosophy and religion. Music was a special love and, although he had only taken one year of piano lessons, he continued to practice diligently and became a competent pianist and, later, church organist.

Carlos worked as an office clerk in Caguas, Gurabo, and at an extension office of the University of Puerto Rico. He used his modest salary to continue his pursuit of knowledge and to support the works of the Church. It was at this time that he began to promote liturgical catechesis. He would often translate articles on the liturgy from English to Spanish and began to publish a periodical, Liturgy and Christian Culture. As he became more convinced that “the liturgy is the life of the Church,” he organized a group dedicated to studying the liturgy and, in 1948, a parochial chorus, Te Deum Laudamus.

Moving to Rio Piedras, Carlos began to work with the faculty of the University of Puerto Rico, and he established a new Liturgy Circle (later known as the Circulo de Cultura Cristiana) at the Catholic University Center. For the university students, he organized “Christian Life Days” to help them enter more fully into the celebration of the cycles and seasons of the Church year. He never ceased to promote the value of a solid liturgical life and the Paschal meaning of life and death in Christ. He, himself, was a member of the Brotherhood of Christian Doctrine, the Holy Name Society, and the Knights of Columbus. Carlos also taught religious education in a local high school, paying for the catechetical materials himself.

Carlos promoted liturgical renewal among both the clergy and the laity. Anticipating many of the reforms outlined in the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, he called for increased participation of the laity at Mass, use of the vernacular, and greater observance of the Paschal Vigil, which Pope Pius XII had reformed in 1952.

Although Carlos’ physical strength gradually declined, and he endured nearly unbearable pain, he accepted his suffering with a sense of serenity that rarely betrayed his physical condition. In 1963, it was discovered that he had advanced terminal rectal cancer. Overwhelmed by his diagnosis, he suffered a “dark night of faith,” wondering if he had been abandoned by God. But, before his death on July 13, at the age of 44, his peace was restored and the man who loved the mystery of Christ’s Resurrection so dearly entered eternal life with joy.

The process for the beatification for Carlos Manuel Rodriguez was initiated in 1992, and he was declared Venerable in 1997. Following the recognition of a miracle attributed to his intercession (the complete cure of a woman suffering from non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1981), he was beatified in 2001.

Vivimos Para esa Noche

The witness of his life, along with the simplicity and constancy of his teachings, enriched the lives of many who knew him. He was a true friend and consoler to those who came to him seeking guidance and he was able to help many women and men discern their religious vocation. As the account of his life published by the Vatican News Service notes, “To approach Carlos Manuel and to get to him was as if to approach a light that illuminated one’s perspective of life and its meaning. His glance and smile revealed a certain joy of Easter. An enormous spiritual strength transcended his fragile physical constitution.”

 Each saint is unique and Bl. Carlos is distinguished for a number of reasons. As the first Puerto Rican to be beatified, he provides a powerful, contemporary witness to the people of the Americas. As a layman, he stands out among the many clergy and religious honored by the Church, particularly for his commitment to the evangelization of his peers through his educational apostolates and charitable works. As someone who embraced long-term illness and suffering, Bl. Carlos is a model of Christian fortitude and a spirit of perseverance. His greatest legacy, however, could be said to be his passion for the liturgy and his promotion of a truly liturgical spirituality, especially in living out the Paschal Mystery.

As we continue our celebration of the Year of Faith, we are aware of the significant renewal and reform inspired by the Second Vatican Council. Bl. Carlos did not live to see the fruits of the Council or even the publication of the first of the Council’s documents, Sacrosanctum Concilium, which was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on December 4, 1963, less than five months after Carlos’ death.

The document’s renewed acknowledgement that the liturgy is “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed” while being, at the same time, “the font from which her power flows,” (no. 10) was a sentiment that was very near to Carlos’ heart and which formed the basis of his spirituality. Carlos’ belief in the primacy of the liturgy, as a living out of the Paschal Mystery, was best expressed in his love for the Paschal Vigil. Pope John Paul II acknowledged this when, in his homily for the beatification of Bl. Carlos, he said

The new blessed, illumined by faith in the Resurrection, shared with everyone the profound meaning of the Paschal Mystery, repeating frequently, “We live for this night” . . . His fruitful and generous apostolate chiefly consisted in the effort to help the Church in Puerto Rico to attain an awareness of this important event of our salvation.

Bl. Carlos once declared, “We need Catholics who are alert to the present moment . . . modern Catholics who know how to nourish themselves in the past but whose eyes are fixed on the future.” His own living of the cycles and seasons of the Church year provided him with an unparalleled foundation for his own prayer and service. He would, no doubt, have agreed with the Council Fathers who wrote in Sacrosanctum Concillium that the liturgy moves the faithful, filled with “the paschal sacraments,” to be “one in holiness;” it prays that “they may hold fast in their lives to what they have grasped by their faith;” the renewal in the Eucharist of the covenant between the Lord and man draws the faithful into the compelling love of Christ and sets them on fire (SC, 10).

 As the “work” of the Church, the liturgy cannot become something so “precious” or privatized that it is removed from the lived experience of the faithful. At the same time, however, we cannot lose sight of the reality that the essence of the Church’s liturgical prayer is the oratio which prepares the way for the actio divina, the action of God:

The real “action” in the liturgy in which we are all supposed to participate is the             action of God himself. This is what is new and distinctive about the Christian             liturgy: God himself acts and does what is essential. He inaugurates the new                         creation, makes himself accessible to us, so that, through the things of the earth,             through our gifts, we can communicate with him in a personal way.2 source

Bl. Carlos understood the liturgy’s power to draw us out of ourselves and bring us into communion with God and with the praying Church.

Author Kathleen Norris has written that in our culture, “magnanimity of spirit is precisely what we lack, and if we persist in denying any truth but our own, the danger to society is that our perspective will remain so narrow and self-serving that we lose the ability to effect meaningful change.” As our Western culture grapples with life and death issues of justice and the pursuit of peace, the promotion of the truth, and the protection of the life and dignity of every person, a spirituality of communion is essential.

Bl. John Paul II also recognized these challenges in his Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in America (1999). Urging the peoples of the Americas to foster a true and abiding communion with one another (rooted in the Eucharist), he wrote:

True conversion needs to be prepared and nurtured though the prayerful reading of Sacred Scripture and the practice of the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist. Conversion leads to fraternal communion, because it enables us to understand that Christ is the head of the Church, his Mystical Body; it urges solidarity, because it makes us aware that whatever we do for others, especially for the poorest, we do for Christ himself. Conversion, therefore, fosters a new life, in which there is no separation between faith and works in our daily response to the universal call to holiness. In order to speak of conversion, the gap between faith and life must be bridged. Where this gap exists, Christians are such only in name. To be true disciples of the Lord, believers must bear witness to their faith, and ”witnesses testify not only with words, but also with their lives.”4

The life of Bl. Carlos Manuel Cecilio Rodriguez de Santiago embodied these values. Living a spirituality that found both its source and fulfillment in the prayer of the Church, he was, despite physical suffering and social and financial constraints, constantly promoting a vision of the Christian life that was oriented to the future and towards others fostering, “with the spread of Christian thought, the perfect Christian balance between the natural and the supernatural, the ancient and the modern” (John Paul II, Address to Pilgrims, April 30, 2001).