ROME — On Wednesday, the Vatican announced without explanation that Pope Francis “relieved” Bishop Daniel Fernández Torres “of the pastoral care” of the diocese of Arecibo in Puerto Rico. The bishop is only 57 years old; bishops are required to resign at age 75.
Fernandez Torres, who led the diocese for 12 years, opposed vaccination against COVID-19 and freely signed religious exemptions for people who did not want to be vaccinated.
In August, when the Puerto Rican bishops’ conference drafted a pastoral instruction on the moral importance of getting vaccinated, they had to start the document by saying, “We, six of the seven Catholic bishops of Puerto Rico who make up the Puerto Rican episcopate conference, we consider it appropriate to express ourselves collectively on a subject which, if it could have been the sign of great hope for humanity, has unfortunately become controversial: the question of vaccination against COVID-19.
Pope Francis has been a strong advocate for obtaining the COVID-19 vaccine, calling it an “act of love” and demanding that all Vatican employees receive it.
Fernandez Torres was also accused of refusing to transfer seminarians from his diocese to the new interdiocesan seminary in Puerto Rico, and he was the only prelate not to sign several declarations made by the bishops’ conference, including a nationwide ban on the Tridentine Mass following Pope Francis. ‘ motu proprio Traditional custodians, which limits the use of the traditional Latin liturgy. The bishop also expressed his approbation of a bill that would have banned “conversion therapy” for homosexuals.
“If in trying to be faithful to God, I am replaced, it is worth it, because as a bishop, I can be useful to the Church by my own testimony. I remember the words of Saint John of Avila: ‘how we are honored to be dishonored by seeking the honor of God,’” the bishop said after his dismissal was made public.
In written statements, Fernández Torres explained that he was accused of not obeying Pope Francis and of not being in communion with the rest of the Puerto Rican bishops. To these allegations, he replied, “I feel blessed to have suffered persecution and slander.”
The prelate wrote that it was not for him to explain a decision that he himself did not understand, even if he accepted it “with the patience of Christ for the good of the Church”.
Nor is it for anyone to judge “what only God and history” will judge when the time comes, he said.
Fernández Torres also wrote that he leaves office with his head held high and with inner peace.
“I very much regret that in the Church where mercy is preached so much, some lack in practice a minimum sense of justice,” he wrote, presumably referring to the pope himself, who made of “mercy” a theme of his pontificate.
The Prelate also said that no proceedings have been initiated against him and that he has not been formally charged with any crime. Instead, the apostolic delegate informed him verbally that “Rome demanded my resignation. A successor to the apostles is now being replaced without even undertaking what would be a proper canonical process to remove a parish priest,” he explained.
“I was informed that I had not committed any crime, but that I was said to have been ‘not obedient to the pope and had not been in sufficient communion with my brother bishops in Puerto Rico'”, a- he explained.
It was suggested that he submit his resignation from the pastoral ministry of the Diocese of Arecibo, so that “I remain at the service of the Church” to be appointed to something else if ever he was needed.
“An offer that actually proves my innocence. However, I did not resign because I did not want to become an accomplice in a totally unjust action and even now I hesitate to think that this could happen in our Church,” he said.
After the announcement of the Vatican’s decision, Fernández Torres – he was dismissed from his position, but not from the public ministry – wrote that “this personal experience, on the other hand, helped me to realize in a way new the grave responsibility incumbent on all of us that the bishops have in the government of the Church, which is apostolic and not pyramidal, synodal and not autocratic”.
“I believe that for some time many of us Bishops have been watching with concern what is happening in the Church and reluctant to believe what is happening,” he said, clearly referring to many many other conservative bishops who don’t care. for the style of government and the decisions of Pope Francis.
The bishop is to be temporarily replaced by Bishop Álvaro Corrada del Río, a retired prelate from another diocese in Puerto Rica.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma