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Puerto Rican Bishop Daniel Fernandez Torres, center right, at a pro-life march in 2018Fieles a la Verdad

ARECIBO, Puerto Rico (LifeSiteNews) — Puerto Ricans have expressed an outpouring of support for a faithful bishop abruptly dismissed by Pope Francis this week after defending conscience objections to COVID vaccination.

Priests, parishioners, and Catholic and other Christian leaders have rallied behind Bishop Daniel Fernández Torres, who was ousted from the Diocese of Arecibo without a canonical process on Wednesday.

After news of the bishop’s removal, parishioners and several priests led a vigil in Arecibo Wednesday evening, praying the Rosary, singing hymns, and carrying signs thanking him for his leadership.

The Diocese of Arecibo’s Facebook page has been flooded with hundreds of comments supporting the prelate, many expressing shock and outrage at the pope’s decision.

“It is not possible that the only Bishop who did not close the doors of the Church is going through this,” one commenter wrote. “The agenda of persecution against the one who acts correctly is incredible. We are with you Bishop Daniel 100%. May God cover and protect you more than ever in these sad times.”

“My heart is crushed at this terrible and unfair announcement for our Diocese,” wrote another. “He has been a faithful, accessible, humble, respectful bishop, a true leader of the Church in difficult times.”

“This is tragic. I’m so sorry,” said popular Catholic author and theologian Fernando Casanova in a comment with more than 400 likes.

A demonstration in support of Bishop Fernández Torres is planned for Sunday in front of the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in San Juan from 12 to 5 p.m., with the backing of a Puerto Rican pro-life group.

A Spanish-language petition calling for Pope Francis to restore Bishop Fernández Torres reached 8,000 signatures on Saturday, and a petition launched by LifeSiteNews Friday morning urging his reinstatement has topped 10,000.

Bishop ‘relieved’ after defending freedom of conscience

The Vatican said in a communication Wednesday that Pope Francis “relieved” Bishop Fernández Torres of pastoral care of the Diocese of Arecibo. No formal charges were levied against him.

In a statement, the prelate announced that he was being forced out over allegations of disobedience to the pope and lack of communion with fellow Puerto Rican bishops. “No process has been made against me,” he wrote, “nor have I been formally accused of anything, and simply one day the apostolic delegate verbally communicated to me that Rome was asking me to resign,” which he said that he refused to do.

The bishop’s dismissal came after he declined to join an August letter issued by Puerto Rico’s six other bishops announcing a vaccine mandate for clergy and Church employees and segregation at Mass based on jab status. Echoing Pope Francis, the letter claimed that “there is a duty to be vaccinated.”

But Bishop Fernández Torres had released a separate statement days earlier stressing that Catholics can indeed turn down the shots in good conscience and authorizing priests in Arecibo to sign religious exemption requests. “Respect for the conscience of the person is also Catholic doctrine,” he said, citing the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

His letter reflected the positions of numerous other prelates, including the bishops’ conferences of South Dakota and Colorado, and didn’t contradict the Church’s doctrinal statements on vaccination.

Catholic news outlet ACI Prensa reported that Bishop Fernández Torres’ defense of conscience rights led to his deposition, as did his initial hesitance to send seminarians to a Puerto Rican interdiocesan seminary approved by the Vatican in 2020. Archbishop Roberto Octavio González Nieves of San Juan said in a tweet Thursday that the bishop was removed solely due to alleged “insubordination to the Pope.”

‘He became a moral reference for the entire country’

Christian leaders from across Puerto Rico strongly decried the sudden removal of Bishop Fernández Torres, who was revered for his spiritual and moral leadership by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

One Catholic Puerto Rican senator revealed that she reached out to the apostolic delegate of Puerto Rico, Archbishop Ghaleb Moussa Abdalla Bader, after learning that the Arecibo bishop was facing dismissal, but Bader never responded.

“Unfortunately, the apostolic delegate never answered me, not even by phone,” she said in an interview with Christian radio station Nueva Vida. “There was simply no willingness to listen. There was no audience. There were no possibilities for dialogue,” the senator continued. “I believe that my voice would have been the representative voice of many Puerto Ricans.”

The ousting of Bishop Fernández Torres was “regrettable and shocking,” Rodríguez Veve said. “The Bishop, by recognizing freedom of conscience and by acting in accordance with the doctrine of the faith, he is acting in accordance with the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.”

And Bishop Fernández Torres served as a key leader of the pro-life and pro-family movement in Puerto Rico, uniting Catholics and other Christians across the island, the senator noted.

“More than being a Bishop of the Diocese of Arecibo, he became a moral reference for the entire country,” she said. “Through him, a unity of purpose was achieved for the protection of human life in Puerto Rico, for the protection of the natural family in the country, for the protection of fundamental human rights of the human being, such as religious freedom.”

Mario Rosario, the head of Coalition for Life and Family, a conservative Protestant network, spoke of the bishop in similar terms, describing him as a “Bishop for all of Puerto Rico.”

The removal of Bishop Fernández Torres, who collaborated with the coalition, “is an immense pain,” Rosario told Nueva Vida, at one point shedding tears. “I think it is an injustice, I think it is necessary for the truth to come out,” he said.

Puerto Rican Rep. Lisie Burgos also thanked the bishop and the faithful of Arecibo for their “militancy” in promoting the right to life and the family in a statement on behalf of Puerto Rico’s Project Dignity party. Burgos praised Bishop Fernández Torres in particular for “welcoming and guarding the unvaccinated faithful of his diocese from intimidation.” She added that the Christian party backs his refusal to resign without “due canonical process.”

In an open letter, Puerto Rican Catholic organization Fieles a la Verdad applauded Bishop Fernández Torres for his “example of faith, courage and integrity.” “While other ‘pastors’ closed the churches, demanded entrance cards, or segregated the parishioners, you have been a servant of everyone,” Fieles a la Verdad said.

“Thank you, Monsignor Daniel Fernández Torres! Shepherd with the smell of sheep and the smile of a father. He used the rod and the staff not to bend or mislead his sheep, but to protect and guide them to safety.”

‘They messed with my father’

Priests have also come to the defense of the Arecibo bishop in recent days. In a video on Thursday, Fr. Javier Avilés of the Diocese of Arecibo vowed that he and other priests instructed by the bishop would carry on “everything that Monsignor Daniel taught us,” regardless of his dismissal.

Fr. Avilés thanked the bishop for “for having dared to act when all the other bishops of Our Church said absolutely nothing.” Bishop Fernández Torres, he said, “was always showing his face for our beloved Church, showing his face for the Truth of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“I also want to thank Monsignor Daniel because he has always been like a father to me,” he attested, adding that “they messed with my father, and I have to speak up to defend my father.”

To those behind the bishop’s ouster, Fr. Avilés said that “if they think that by having removed Monsignor Daniel they will solve something, I am sorry to disappoint them by telling them: no, because everything that Monsignor Daniel did, everything that Monsignor Daniel taught us, we are going to continue.”

Popular priest and Catholic writer Fr. Santiago Martín criticized the removal of Bishop Fernández Torres in a video titled “Save the Papacy.” The bishop’s deposition, he said, is most of all “a violation of the right of the Church.”

Even when a cleric is accused of a serious crime, such as abuse, “he has the right to be tried” and to defend himself, the Spanish priest said. “However, the Bishop of Arecibo has not been given that right. He has not been given the opportunity to be judged and to defend himself, accused of not being in communion with his brothers. He has been dismissed with a sudden dismissal.”

Archbishop Héctor Aguer, Archbishop Emeritus of La Plata, Argentina, went further in a blistering condemnation of the Vatican under Pope Francis. “A couple of years ago I was invited by Bishop Daniel to preach the Spiritual Exercises to the clergy of the diocese. I was then able to see how a particular Church flourishes when its bishop is a man of God, faithful to the great ecclesial Tradition,” he said. “But that does not interest Rome.”

“The current Church is no longer concerned with God, or with Christ’s mandate to evangelize, but only with imposing ‘new paradigms’ and adhering to the principles of a New World Order, alien to natural law and Christian revelation,” the archbishop said.

Puerto Rican Catholics told LifeSite that Bishop Fernández Torres for years has been the only prelate on the island who regularly stood up for life, the natural family, and religious freedom.

In an interview with LifeSite in March 2021, the bishop slammed a proposed bill that would have prohibited “any effort or treatment” to reduce or eliminate same-sex attraction or transgenderism in minors. The legislation would have prevented treatment of sexually confused people after sex abuse and effectively outlawed Catholic teaching, he said.

“Is it a crime to be a Christian in Puerto Rico?” he wrote in an impassioned letter to the Senate of Puerto Rico. “Indeed it is when it is intended to impose, under penalty of accusations of ‘institutional abuse,’ that our religious institutions teach something that is intrinsically contrary to faith, biology and human reason.” The bill never became law.

The Arecibo prelate has also supported the Traditional Latin Mass, which he did not ban in his diocese as some Puerto Ricans bishops cracked down after new restrictions issued by the Pope last year.

Una Voce Puerto Rico, an affiliate of the international Latin Mass organization, published a statement on Wednesday backing the bishop and offering “our prayers, solidarity, and unconditional support to Monsignor Fernández Torres, and to thank him for his courageous testimony of the Truth, his tireless defense of moral morality and Catholic doctrine, and his fatherly care for all of us who have known him.”