A severe debt and economic crisis brought Puerto Rico’s economy and government services to the brink of collapse this year and has led to the largest wave of outmigration from Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland in more than 50 years. Over the past five years, the island’s population has shrunk by 7 percent to 3.4 million.
This crisis has also created many difficulties for the Puerto Rican Catholic Church, which has seen an increase in people seeking its social services at a time when its own resources are greatly reduced.
Earlier this year Archbishop Roberto González of San Juan was one of the most prominent advocates for a plan to restructure the island’s $72 billion debt, which became law in June.
Despite being troubled by the lack of Puerto Rican decision making authority, he supported what is called the PROMESA (Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act) plan as the only viable path out of the crisis.
“Our economy is worsening, our people are fleeing and a humanitarian crisis continues to unfold,” Archbishop González, who is the president of the Puerto Rican bishops’ conference, wrote in a June 7 op-ed for The Hill newspaper.
He told Catholic Extension, that resolving the crisis would take a long time and a path through a series of stages, the first one being the federal oversight board appointed August 31 by the U.S. government.
Archbishop González said that the Puerto Rican Church’s greatest concern is for the “almost 60 percent of children under the age of 16 who live below the poverty level. Those families are being hit the hardest.”
According to the archbishop, Caritas, Puerto Rico’s equivalent of Catholic Charities, has seen more than double the number of people come for help for basic necessities. Some hospitals have had to close wards, and more than 150 public schools have shut their doors.
Many of the Church’s social services have seen cuts from the Puerto Rican and the U.S. governments. And the Catholic Church also had to close about a dozen of its schools, primarily because of a loss of students due to the continuing emigration off the island and the fact that — because of loss of jobs or otherwise diminishing family resources — fewer people are able to pay for a Catholic education.
Mariluna Román, the assistant treasurer for the Diocese of Arecibo, said she sees the same double effect throughout her diocese, particularly in parishes. “The money people are able to give is less because of the economic difficulties they experience, and we have fewer people who can give because they are moving away.”
As Catholics and their Church in Puerto Rico face growing challenges, Archbishop González also sees moments of grace and growth: “People are deeply religious here and have a commitment to the Gospel way of life. That helps them to endure the unbearable.”
“We need to learn to live more simply. We need to learn to share more and to depend more on the Lord than on ourselves.”
Román agreed, “It has been a tough time, and it is going to get even tougher, but we are confident that with so many wonderful, faithful people in our diocese, we are going to get through this. Definitely.”
In this time of need, the Puerto Rican Church appreciates the help Catholic Extension has been providing. “Catholic Extension’s assistance through the generosity of its donors has been critical,” Archbishop González said, particularly citing the help with building and renovating churches, chapels, and parish facilities; subsidizing seminaries and seminarians; and creating some of the diocesan infrastructures in the newer Puerto Rican dioceses.
Román said she was especially grateful for how Extension recently helped her diocese by providing tools, training and strategies for financial planning, grant writing and fundraising.
Catholic Extension has been active in Puerto Rico since its very early days. Extension’s founder, Father Francis Clement Kelley, had a great interest in helping the Puerto Rican Church, and in 1909 he issued an impassioned plea to Extension magazine readers to help save the Catholic Church in the cradle of the faith in the Western hemisphere. The threats he saw for the survival of the Church in Puerto Rico caused him to ring the alarm bells, warning, “The devil is having a great time” there.
Since its first assistance in 1908 for a building project in the Archdiocese of San Juan, Catholic Extension’s funding to the island’s six dioceses has totaled more than $54 million (or $100 million when adjusted for inflation). More than 40 percent, or $22 million, of these funds have gone toward 1,400 building projects for churches and church facilities.
Over the past five years combined, funding from Catholic Extension to Puerto Rico has been almost $6 million. In addition to the programs already mentioned, some of the other areas Catholic Extension supports today include lay leadership formation, youth ministry, catechist training, hospital chaplains, communications and retreat ministries.
To help with the greater needs in Puerto Rico, Catholic Extension is planning to further increase its funding to the island next year.