By Kirk Petersen
The Rt. Rev. Rafael Morales Maldonado was consecrated the VII Bishop of Puerto Rico in July 2017 — just in time to respond to the worst natural disaster in the recorded history of the island.
On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria slammed into the island after dropping just below Category 5 status, killing nearly 3,000 Puertorriqueños, devastating the electrical grid, and destroying many structures.
A month before Morales’s consecration, Executive Council convened one of its thrice-yearly meetings in the Condado Plaza Hilton, an oceanfront hotel in San Juan. After the hurricane, it became inevitable that the council would visit again, if for no other reason than to inject some money into the economy. After COVID restrictions canceled plans last year, the council has returned to the same hotel for a four-day meeting, April 20-23.
Morales addressed the council on April 21, and in introducing him, Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry had high praise for Morales’s disaster response.
“Bishop Morales, and the clergy, and lay leaders of this diocese, rallied like I’ve not seen anywhere else,” Curry said. “They gathered all the resources of this diocese — the St. Luke Medical System, the congregations. … They had MASH-unit hospitals, they didn’t wait for the patients to come to the hospitals, they took the hospital to the patients, including in the mountains, including in remote areas, all over this island.”
“If Jesus were here, he would go to the people,” Morales said.
He noted that this year marks 150 years of Anglicanism in Puerto Rico, dating back to when the island was a Spanish colony. He said Spain’s dominant Roman Catholic Church had allowed the Anglican church to open churches on two conditions: they could not open the front doors, and could not ring the bell. He drew a laugh by explaining that when the Americans took over the island in 1898 after the Spanish-American War, “we open the doors, and we ring the bell.”
That first bell-ringing occurred at Holy Trinity Church in Ponce, which still has what is now called the Religious Liberty Bell, Morales said.
The diocese is a key provider of social services, operating three Episcopal Schools and the 350-bed San Lucas hospital in Ponce. Morales said the diocese is working toward opening a second hospital in the San Juan area. The Seminario Episcopal San Pedro y San Pablo in the San Juan suburb of Trujillo Alto has 25 seminarians, and is working toward accreditation. The diocese also operates a radio station.
Last November, a new diocesan center was dedicated in San Juan. In addition to gathering all of the administrative offices in one place, the building also features a recording studio and a print shop.
Morales did not discuss the status of the hurricane recovery during his presentation, but later told TLC that the island has “partially recovered.”
He said Congress has appropriated funds to repair the electrical grid, but “FEMA is very slow in approving new projects,” referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and “that’s a real problem.”
He added, “The sad situation is, we have the money! But we can’t start any project until FEMA has okayed.” He said two projects have been approved, but others are stalled.
Still, Morales is relentlessly optimistic.
“Hurricane Maria [caused] a transformation in the church,” he said. “In this moment, we decide we need to be more missionaries, to be more in the streets, to be even more present with the community.” He said the diocese has opened five churches since the hurricane.