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In Series of Interviews, Archbishop of San Juan Describes Hurricane’s Destruction

Roberto Gonzalez, archbishop of San Juan, speaks to guests at the St. Anthony Shrine Franciscan dinner. (Photo courtesy of Sean Browne)

In the days leading up to the annual Franciscan Dinner at the Seaport Hotel in Boston, many of the attendees were looking forward to the event, which supports St. Anthony Shrine.

But there was one attendee who wasn’t sure if he should go.

Roberto González, OFM, had wanted to attend the event, but that was before Hurricane María devastated Puerto Rico. Three weeks after the storm hit the island, the archbishop of San Juan wondered if he should stay with his people or travel to Boston for the event.

“I wasn’t sure whether I should come,” Roberto later told The Boston Herald. “But we all need each other.”

The people of Boston made sure his trip wasn’t made in vain. They contributed $25,000 toward Puerto Rico relief, for which Roberto was appreciative.

“I am deeply grateful for the generosity of this evening’s effort,” said Roberto. “The donation is amazing. It’s very moving. We’ll get through this. Faith has been an anchor in this crisis.”

While in the United States, Roberto spent time raising additional awareness for Puerto Rico by celebrating a Mass at St. Anthony Shrine on Oct. 12 and through interviews with various media outlets.

“I’ve never been in a war zone, but from what I’ve seen and heard, it’s akin to a war zone,” he said of the devastation in an interview with WBZ-TV. “At least half the population – which means hundreds of thousands of people – do not have access to potable water three weeks after the hurricane.”

Roberto Gonzalez being interviewed by David Robichaud from WBZ/Channel 4 in Boston. (Photo courtesy of Julie Ogden)

The Catholic Church in Puerto Rico has served more than 50,000 during the past three weeks at its main office in San Juan, Roberto told WBUR News.

That number doesn’t include people who have gone to parishes for assistance.

“We need help in providing basics – water, food, and medications,” he said. “We’re in the process of setting up a distribution center that is only for medications.”

He continued, “There is a great amount of human suffering. The hurricanes – especially María – have uncovered an enormous amount of poverty. The devastation has made visible the huge amount of people who live in wooden homes with zinc roofs. The hurricane blew away all of those roofs and many people’s homes. A Vietnam vet told me that when he walked out of his home after the hurricane, he thought he was back in Vietnam.”

Soon after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Holy Name Province announced the creation of a relief fund that began on the feast of St. Francis and concluded on Oct. 22. Each Provincial fraternity and ministry was asked to raise funds in whatever way it could in order to assist the people of Puerto Rico.

Since Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, Roberto has done several interviews to raise awareness, including with National Catholic Reporter, Catholic News Service and with Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Fr. David Dwyer on the cardinal’s podcast.

Roberto, with the bishop of St. Thomas, and the head of the Evangelical Bible Society also released a statement calling for more aid for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and the cancellation of their debt. The statement corresponded with President Donald Trump’s visit to the island on Oct 3.

“Our islands cannot pay the debt until we’ve rebuilt and we see positive economic recovery,” they wrote. “We need a debt payment moratorium, debuts must be canceled and reduced to sustainable payable levels. When economies are already dealing with austerity policies and financial crisis, they are ill-prepared to deal with natural disasters like Hurricane Irma and Maria.”

They continued, “As we struggle to recover from these terrible storms, we join religious partners from around our world in calling for an economy that defends and lifts the vulnerable. Our loving God intends for us all to have enough and to live in harmony with one another and our planet.”

Maria Hayes is communications coordinator for Holy Name Province.

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