Pope Francis has appointed a new bishop to lead the Puerto Rican Diocese of Arecibo, the Holy See announced Wednesday. The appointment comes six months after Francis sacked the previous bishop under circumstances which remain unclear.
Bishop Alberto Arturo Figueroa Morales’ appointment to the Arecibo dioceses was announced by the Holy See Sept. 14.
Figueroa’s appointment follows the abrupt and still unexplained dismissal by the pope of his predecessor, Bishop Daniel Fernández Torres, in March. Fernández was “relieved” of the pastoral care of his diocese March 9, according to a Vatican communique released that day, and an apostolic administrator was appointed to govern the Arecibo diocese.
The pope’s formal deposing of a diocesan bishop was a highly unusual event, even bishops found guilty of serious misconduct are usually afforded the face-saving option of resignation, rather than removal.
Fernández’s sacking was made even more unusual by his response. Almost immediately after he was removed, the bishop said that he had been denied any canonical process, and remained unaware of what, exactly, he was meant to have done to merit removal from office.
But while Fernández retains a strong level of support in his former diocese, even local Catholics committed to his cause have expressed welcome and support following Figueroa’s appointment.
One group, “Friends of Bishop Daniel [Fernandez],” formed by local Catholics after Fernández’s dismissal, issued a statement welcoming the new appointment.
“The Committee of Friends of Bishop Daniel receives with brotherly love and offers its prayers for Bishop Alberto Figueroa, after his appointment as the new bishop of Arecibo,” said the group, which claims to represent nearly 10% of the diocese’s more than 300,000 Catholics.
“We pray that his episcopate will be a fruitful one. We hope that the new bishop will continue the pastoral work of Bishop Daniel Fernández, in particular his initiatives in favor of life, family and youth, in accordance with Catholic doctrine and the Gospel,” said the statement.
“At the same time,” the group said, “we let it be known that our struggle continues and we demand that the injustices committed in the process that led to the removal of Bishop Daniel Fernández be investigated and corrected.”
Fernández’s March removal has been the subject of controversy in Puerto Rico, and in Rome.
In a statement issued at the time of his removal, Fernández said he was told by the pope’s representative in Puerto Rico, apostolic delegate Archbishop Ghaleb Bader, that he “had not been obedient to the pope, nor had [he] had sufficient communion with [his] brother bishops of Puerto Rico.” But despite formal requests for an explanation of his alleged “disobedience”, the bishop said he had received no response.
Fernández complained in March that he had been “replaced without even undertaking what would be a due canonical process to remove a parish priest.”
Fernández has said he believes that several Puerto Rican bishops, led by Archbishop González Nieves of San Juan, pushed for his removal over a statement he had issued on coronavirus vaccines, he decision not to send his own students to an interdiocesan seminary on the island, and over disagreement about a 2018 lawsuit against the Archdiocese of San Juan’s pension fund.
The bishop also said that he believes Archbishop Nieves had been seeking to have him moved off island for years, beginning when Fernández was an auxiliary bishop in San Juan.
Since his removal, Fernández has attempted to file a formal canonical petition to Pope Francis, asking the pontiff to reconsider the manner of his removal, and to allow him a chance to defend himself against whatever claims led to his dismissal.
But to date Fernández has not been granted an audience with the pope.
For his part, Figueroa has been auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of San Juan since 2019. He became an incardinated priest of the archdiocese in 2010, and was before that a Capuchin Franciscan.
While welcoming their new bishop, Friends of Bishop Daniel said that “the process carried out in the case against Bishop Fernández totally deviates from the synodal spirit to which Pope Francis has called us to live in the Church and, as a consequence, deep wounds remain between the clergy, the religious and the laity of the Diocese of Arecibo that must be healed.”
Noting that a petition on their former bishop’s behalf, signed by more than 30,000 local Catholics, had gone unanswered by Church authorities, the group said that “the lack of openness to dialogue and the absence of mercy hurts.”
“As a result of this process, a town was deprived of a great shepherd and a man of God who did not commit any crime or misdemeanor has been treated unfairly,” the group said. “We trust that the Pope will listen to this claim and correct the injustices committed and that the same does not happen with other good shepherds.”
“We invite all the brothers of the Diocese of Arecibo to join us in a novena to Saint Michael the Archangel starting next Tuesday, September 20, to pray for our new Bishop Alberto, our diocese, for our beloved Bishop Daniel and his legacy,” the Friends of Bishop Daniel statement concluded.
It is not clear whether Fernández will attend Figueroa’s installation Mass.