Puerto Rico native surprised by call to become a bishop

| September 24, 2018 | 0 Comments
Bishop-elect Juan Miguel Betancourt Torres

Bishop-elect Juan Miguel Betancourt Torres prays during Mass at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity.

Father Juan Miguel Betancourt Torres was meeting with a seminarian the afternoon of Sept. 11 when his phone rang. He ignored it.

When it continued to ring, he checked the number and saw an unfamiliar area code.

It was from Washington, D.C. Bishop-elect Betancourt, a vice rector of spiritual formation at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, took the call as the seminarian stepped out of the room.

He thought it might be the superior general of his religious community, Servants of the Holy Eucharist and of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Instead, it was the apostolic nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre.

He informed Father Betancourt that Pope Francis had appointed him to be an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut.

“And then he said, ‘Do you know where that [Hartford] is?’” Bishop-elect Betancourt recalled. “And, we started laughing. ‘Yes, Archbishop, that’s Connecticut.’”

Replying to Archbishop Pierre that he is a “man of the Church,” Father Betancourt accepted the role. Six days later, he flew to Hartford to meet people from the archdiocese and Archbishop Leonard Blair. He will be ordained 2 p.m. Oct. 18 at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford.

The 48-year-old native of Puerto Rico came to the U.S. in 2006 to serve in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis both at the seminary, where he teaches Scripture, and as pastor of St. Francis de Sales in St. Paul. He said he did not see this appointment coming.

“It was, for me, shocking, and confusing, too, because you don’t expect that call,” he said. “My mind was just spinning,”

But, he was reassured of his ability to handle the role when he called Archbishop Bernard Hebda later that day to discuss the appointment. He also gained strength and resolve from his next move after getting the nuncio’s phone call, when the seminarian, Chris Grow of the Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa, came back into the room to continue their meeting.

Bishop-elect Betancourt couldn’t tell Grow why, but “I said, ‘Let’s go to the chapel,’” he recounted. “So, he accompanied me to the chapel, and I went directly to the Blessed Mother [statue]. And, I just stayed there in prayer.”

He added, “I just offered myself: ‘Blessed Mother, this is what’s happening. So, you take care of this.’”

A week later, the Vatican announced the appointment. That morning, Sept. 18, Bishop-elect Betancourt called his parents, Gloria and Miguel, who live in his hometown of Ponce, Puerto Rico. It was 6 a.m.

“It was my first phone call after the announcement,” he said. “Of course, they were asleep yet. And then, I just woke them up to this news. … They were very happy and very supportive.”

His mother was the one who answered the phone. He recalls she told him: “This is the mission that the Lord has given you. I’m confident that you will do the work of the Lord there, and serve and love his people.”

His vocation to the priesthood began in high school, a short time after he had veered away from his childhood faith. Growing up, the family — including his two sisters, Gloria and Glorimar — attended Mass every Sunday at Good Shepherd in Ponce. But, that changed when he became a teenager.

“Sometimes, I would just skip Mass, stay with Dad at home,” he said. “And then, Mom and my sisters would go to church.”

When he started attending a Catholic K-12 school, Colegio San Conrado, he returned to the faith, and it grew deeper. He joined the parish youth group, sang in the choir and became an altar server.

He continued deepening his faith college, where he attended the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan and studied natural sciences.

“Sophomore year, being so active in church, I started questioning if I had a vocation for the priesthood,” he said. “ I just realized that I need to give Jesus a chance.”

He wanted to go to seminary that year, but his parents advised him to stay where he was and finish his degree in natural sciences, which he did in December 1991. The next month, he joined the Servants, a religious institute founded in 1981 in Puerto Rico with ties to the German Schoenstatt movement. He now is the local superior of its St. Paul community, the Casa de San Jose.

“The charism of the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and the devotion to the Blessed Mother attracted me,” said Bishop-elect Betancourt, who was ordained a priest in Puerto Rico in 2001. “And, the third important thing was the strong sense of community, the fraternity.”

Since joining the community, he has only lived apart from it for one year, when he was studying in Rome. So, being in Hartford without other members of his community will be an adjustment. Currently, he is one of six members in St. Paul, with all of them — three priests and three brothers — living at St. Francis de Sales.

“This is new for me,” he said. “I know that I am going to be living very close to the archbishop’s house, and he lives with other priests. We talked about it, Archbishop Blair and I, about the sense of community. So, we’ll try just to kind of figure it out.”

He said the members of his community “are just thrilled and excited” about his appointment, and they plan on coming to his ordination, as well as have a celebration in Puerto Rico. His parents and sisters plan to attend his ordination as well.

The timetable for going to Hartford was somewhat accelerated, with the archbishop wanting him there in November for the celebration of its 175th anniversary. After that, he will focus on ways to assist the archbishop in meeting the pastoral needs of the people there, including Latino Catholics. He thinks his background in both language and culture will be an asset. But, he also emphasized his desire to connect with all Catholics in Hartford.

“When I was in Rome, I was always meeting people from different countries, and I had a lot of friends from different countries,” he said. “Still today, we keep in touch. So that’s very important for me.”

Bishop-elect Betancourt earned a bachelor’s degree in theological studies in 2000 and a master of divinity degree in 2002, both from the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico. In 2005, he received his sacred Scripture licentiate from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.

Prior to teaching at St. Paul Seminary, he was a professor of sacred Scripture at the Pontifical University of Puerto Rico and a professor of sacred Scripture at Regina Cleri Major Seminary in Puerto Rico from 2005 to 2006.

Bishop-elect Betancourt has been a board member of the National Conference for Seminarians in Hispanic Ministry since 2009 and a liaison for foreign seminarians at the St. Paul Seminary since 2008. He also has served on the archdiocese’s presbyteral council.

Among his strengths, Bishop-elect Betancourt said, are “a willingness to serve the Church” and a “joyful character.” He also describes himself as “a good listener” and someone who “likes to pray.”

“The strongest asset is my willingness to serve the Church,” he said.

As he looks forward to his new role, he also will continue to look back at his 12 years of ministry in the archdiocese. He is known at the seminary for his joy and boundless energy, and Msgr. Aloysius Callaghan, who was there when he began teaching in 2007 and recently retired from his role as rector, said that he wants Archbishop Blair to have a guest room ready for him when he comes to Hartford for visits. Overall, there is a sense of loss at the seminary, which is shared by the bishop-elect.

“There’s sadness, of course,” he said. “There’s a sense of grief. And, there’s the normal fear of leaving what I love, what I have, for something that is completely new and unknown.”

He added, “I plan to enjoy every single minute with the people that I have here, both at the seminary and at the parish, and my religious community. … Archbishop Blair and the priests that I’ve met and the people that I’ve met are very happy, and they have assured me that they will help me with what I need, and they have assured me that I will love it there.”

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