A chronically ill college dropout seems an unlikely candidate to be the first Puerto Rican Saint, but Blessed Carlos Manuel Rodriguez Santiago was never terribly concerned about other people’s expectations. Born to a faithful Catholic family in 1918, Rodriguez was the second of five children; two sisters later married and one became a Carmelite nun, while his only brother became the first Puerto Rican abbot. Though the family’s home burned to the ground when Carlos was only six, his parents responded with trust in God’s mercy, even as they lived for years on the charity of family members.
Carlos learned a deep love for the Eucharist from his mother, and the remarkably intelligent little boy had hopes of becoming a priest until his health failed. Diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a violent digestive ailment, Carlos had to leave high school for a time and didn’t earn his diploma until he was 21. He worked as an office clerk for seven more years before attempting to continue his studies. Again his illness made this impossible, and despite excellent grades Carlos was forced to withdraw from university.
Though ulcerative colitis complicated his life, it didn’t control it. Carlos read incessantly, loved to hike, and learned enough from a year of piano lessons to play the organ at Mass. He studied science, philosophy, and the arts, but the great love of Blessed Carlos’ life was the liturgy.
During a time when the Mass was celebrated in Latin, Rodriguez longed for the faithful to understand the prayers more fully. He spent his free time translating them into Spanish and his modest income publishing magazines making the prayers available to the laity, along with articles explaining the liturgy. He organized groups to study and learn about the liturgy, spoke before crowds on its beauty, and taught high school catechism classes.
Much of the work Rodriguez did seemed almost prophetic. While remaining entirely faithful to the Church, he advocated for use of the vernacular and increased lay participation, reforms that would come fewer than 20 years later. He longed, with Pope St. John XXIII, to open the windows and let the Holy Spirit call even more hearts to holiness. His insistence on the universal call to holiness infected those he met, drawing hundreds of people into a deeper relationship with Christ.
Above all, Carlos loved the Easter Vigil. His near-constant refrain was “We live for this night,” reminding all those he met that the heart of the Christian life is the Paschal mystery, the truth that the God of the universe, made incarnate for you, died for love of you and rose again, conquering sin and death. Despite constant pain, Blessed Carlos lived in hope and called all those he knew to do the same.
For centuries, the Easter Vigil had been celebrated on the morning of Holy Saturday. Blessed Carlos prayed and advocated for its return to its proper place at night so that modern Christians could join in the ancient tradition of watching the light of Christ defeat the darkness. In 1952, Pope Pius XII restored the Easter Vigil to the night of Holy Saturday and Carlos rejoiced.
But he wouldn’t live to see his other hopes realized. Carlos died in 1963, a year into the Second Vatican Council. His health slowly declined, though his spirits never did, and at 44, Blessed Carlos died of a painful rectal cancer. During his last months, Carlos felt himself abandoned by God, living the darkness of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, but before he died the light of Easter came back into his life and with it the joy of being loved by God. And when he died, he was welcomed by choirs of angels rejoicing in the heavenly liturgy that Carlos had loved and served so well.
By many measures, the life of this sickly dropout may have seemed a failure, but Blessed Carlos Rodriguez Santiago was rich in the eyes of God, drawing his people to love him more in the Mass. On July 13, his feast day, let’s ask his intercession for the chronically ill, for all those who feel like failures, and for all who work to create solemn, beautiful, and joyful liturgies. Blessed Carlos Manuel Rodriguez Santiago, pray for us!