Among Latin American nations, Puerto Rico stands out for great beach resorts, feisty music, and its tradition of boxers and dancers — but not for anything especially noteworthy in relation to the Catholic faith.

Puerto Rico's fame as a secular territory may be changing, thanks to the events of the last year surrounding the frail figure of Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, a man who died of cancer in 1963 at age 45.

He may also become the first Puerto Rican to be declared blessed.

In 1997, Pope John Paul II proclaimed the heroic nature of the virtues possessed by Rodríguez, and last April the medical team of the Vatican's Congregation for the Cause of Saints determined the “inexplicable character” of the healing attributed to his intercession.

Thousands of Puerto Ricans are now hoping to see the frail figure of their native son raised to the altars as a canonized saint during the Great Jubilee year 2000.

While Rodríguez has never faded from the memory of those who knew him, a new wave of interest in his life was ignited earlier this year when a feature story in the newspaper Nuevo Dia offered details of a miraculous cure performed through the apparent intercession of the Puerto Rican layman who was known to all as “Charlie.”

The coverage not only sparked the curiosity of the public in general, it revived the faith of former companions from his days at the University of Puerto Rico, and gave a boost to current pastoral activities at the campus — a further sign that Rodríguez was, indeed, a holy man.

Devout Since Youth

Who was this man who may become the first “Boricua” — a native Puerto Rican — saint?

Carlos Rodríguez was born on Nov. 22, 1918 to a family of small entrepreneurs from the city of Caguas. Second of five children, Charlie was strongly drawn to the liturgy. From his earliest days, he loved nothing better than to wake up early to serve Mass at his parish church.

“Charlie was a man in love with Christ,” recalled his brother, Jose, a 77-year-old Benedictine monk. “His apostolate started at home, where he would lead the family in prayer and devotions. With both simplicity and sharpness, he instructed us in the meaning of liturgical symbols, a field in which he was extremely knowledgeable.”

Haydee, a younger sister, is also a religious. She remembered her brother as “always involved in plans to make people happy. The year I studied at [New York's] Fordham University, the first time I left home to spend a year abroad, he would write me a newsletter, La Chismosa — The Gossip — to keep me up to date with news from the family, the town and the Church,” said Sister Haydee.

“His funny, sharp comments were always smartly combined with spiritual recommendations and reflections,” she said.

At age 12, Charlie was attacked by a dog and was left with a severe intestinal problem that would later force him to leave aside formal studies. Some of his doctors also believe that the original condition provoked the intestinal cancer that would kill Carlos Rodríguez 32 years later.

An Educated Man

Although he did not complete university, Charlie became a highly educated man. His self-acquired knowledge in the liberal arts and humanities impressed officials from the University of Puerto Rico enough that they hired him to coordinate campus cultural activities.

Once established in a role at the university, Rodríguez created and promoted a successful campus ministry that was centered on cultural activities and an intense liturgical life.

He later added the role of student counselor to his responsibilities at the university's Catholic Center, increasing an already intense apostolic life.

“By his erudition, he easily gained the attention of his audience. His affability and friendly manner gained the confidence and the esteem of those with whom he came in contact,” said Fernando Aguilo, a former protege.

“Above all, he was always available — almost without condition — to those who sought his knowledge and his counsel,” said Aquilo.

A lover of music, opera and the films, Rodríguez became a skilled youth apostle, capable of attracting students by combining culture, entertainment, friendship and a strong spiritual life.

But not even his closest friends knew how much he suffered from the medical problems that often prevented him from eating.

“The only thing we ever criticized him for was that he worked too hard and that he would forget to eat,” said Norma Diaz, another student from Rodríguez' days at the Catholic Center. “We would take turns inviting him to lunch or dinner to make sure that he would get something to eat.”

According to his relatives, even small amounts of food could cause terrible pain. Nevertheless, Rodríguez frequently complied with his friends' concerns for his eating habits without letting them know how much he suffered once out of their sight.

Love of the Liturgy

If anything particularly characterized Charlie Rodríguez, his relatives and friends agreed, it was his deep love and incredible knowledge of Catholic liturgy. The solemn and mystical qualities of the Latin liturgy of the time held a deep attraction for him. This was especially noteworthy since the language and ceremonies of the old Mass were not as accessible to the average Catholic as is the contemporary Mass, usually offered in the vernacular and in a more simplified manner.

Following the decision of Pope Pius XII to restore the Holy Saturday Easter Vigil in all its fullness to the liturgical life of the Church, Rodríguez dedicated himself to understanding the liturgy and helping to achieve its skillful celebration. His concern moved him to write respectful but direct letters to bishops about how to encourage a reverent celebration of the Holy Saturday liturgy while also promoting greater attendance and participation by the faithful.

He was a tireless promoter and teacher of the rich meaning of the Catholic liturgy. “I especially remember his diminutive figure working enthusiastically, typing and mimeographing his liturgical manuscripts,” said Rafael Irizarry, a university alumnus. “He was completely committed in his desire to renew the liturgical traditions in the Church,” Irizarry said.

Despite his lean, small figure, say those who remember him, Rodríguez was capable of transmitting a strong sense of his commitment to the Catholic faith, and to generate admiration among friends and disciples.

The Cure

It was the memory and fond admiration of these qualities that encouraged a 42-year-old married woman and mother to pray for Rodríguez's intercession after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

Doctors in Puerto Rico and the United States agreed that the woman's lymphoma was terminal. “We always remembered Charlie as a close friend, but as an even closer friend of God. So we decided to ask him to give us a hand,” said the woman, who asked not be identified by name in order not to interfere with the beatification process.

Two weeks later, a new analysis revealed that the lymphoma had totally disappeared. A later surgery to discard another possible cancer confirmed that not a trace of the deadly tumor remained. “Charlie devoted all his life to the apostolate and to serve others. He fervently dedicated his time to the students, acting with patience, without ever expressing anger, bad humor or sadness,” she told the Register.

“From the very beginning we knew he was trying hard to become a holy person, so before he died, I decided to keep a cotton [ball] with his blood, because I was sure this would some day become a saint's relic,” she said.

According to Capuchin Father Mario Meza, postulator of Rodríguez' cause, “he was convinced that his vocation was to be a lay person, a lay saint devoted to promote the love of Christ in the midst of daily life.” He was a forerunner to many of today's lay movements and “what Pope John Paul II calls the evangelization of culture,” said Father Meza.

Father Meza conducts a weekly radio program with a growing audience that includes reports about the progress of Rodríguez' cause. “Each time we announce something new, the enthusiasm grows and we have even more people reporting favors,” the Capuchin said.

Alejandro Bermudez, Latin America correspondent, writes from Lima, Peru.