The toll of death… It is November 2, 1947. In a small apartment on Comerío Street in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, Ana Belén brings her third child into the world: “Aníbal”. A difficult delivery which bursts forth in new life. That little child would spend his entire life in illnesses. His father, Isabelo Reyes, was a working man, worried about putting the daily bread on the table.
Anibal received the waters of baptism in the Church of the Holy Cross. The baptismal font where he was born into the life of grace still remains. He never abandoned Catholicism, as much as his father, in the naïveté of his religious ignorance, insisted on going to the Lutheran Church. Even when he was little, Catholicism was always his Church. Doña Maria, “the widow”, took charge of taking him to the House of God, to processions, to receive the sacraments.
In that life of poverty, happiness was the common climate, above all in the three siblings: Junior, Cuca, and Toco (Anibal). The apartment was a window of hope and a workshop of education “the old-fashioned way”. There the personality of our Father Anibal took shape. The “old kid”, in his world of silences and observation, learned to love and to grow. While still a child, Don Chaelo immigrated like many Puerto Ricans to the great City, New York. His family would eventually go as well. They were going to test their fortune and seek employment opportunities. After two years, the family returned to Puerto Rico. An incident in the life of our Anibal would provoke this quick exodus: an Italian broke a glass bottle and left Anibal’s little right hand marked forever.
At age nine, he made his First Communion at Perpetual Help Parish, served by the Dominican Fathers. At this tender age, he suffers a crisis which will mark his life forever. A Dominican Father helps him get through an existential crisis of which he spoke to us on various occasions. Before the mystery of death, that young life was shaken. A relative had died and the child saw the burial. Thus began a crisis which worsened to the extreme of not finding a way out: the problem of death. This is when the priest brought him before the Virgin and consecrated him to Her. It was the first living encounter with Mary, the Mother of Life… There, a world awoke for him which would expand… Mary will be his all.
WAY OF CONSECRATION
Lively, playful, intelligent, but immersed in a world of uncommon ideals, the tenuous little flame which he secretly carried in his heart is soon stoked. At fifteen, he already makes known to his father his decision to be a priest and to consecrate himself to God in religious life. At sixteen, he enters the candidacy of the meritorious Order of St. Dominic. Little by little he discovers that that is not his place. The secularizing currents are felt like a polar cold. His soul is for high temperatures. He is a man of fire…
He asks the Blessed Mother to show him another place. In the parish of his birth he meets the Missionary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. And with them he begins again his vocational path. He is attracted by those two mysteries which were the love and ornament of the Institute: the Eucharist and the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
He made his Novitiate in Spain, in Jerez de los Caballeros (Province of Badajoz), concluding his initial formation in Loja (Province of Granada). There he drank from the crystal clear waters of their Holy Founder, St. Anthony Mary Claret. But his Novitiate saw the beginning of a renal crisis which would worsen over the years and which would be, in great part, the cause of his death. He will even have to undergo surgery. Those kidneys will provide him all of the suffering for his sacrifices and his sanctification. Having completed his Novitiate, he is sent to Puerto Rico where he will study philosophy at the Catholic University in Ponce.
CONTACT WITH SCHOENSTATT
This stage of his life is very rich. Here, in 1971, he met Fr. Guillermo Esters and Sister M. Petra, who were responsible for the incipient birth of the Apostolic Movement of Schoenstatt in Puerto Rico.
During one of his visits to the Chapel of the Our Lady, venerated there as the Divine Shepherdess, he noticed that the Schoenstatt group was meeting and asked to join them. From then on, Fr. Guillermo would introduce him to the world of Schoenstatt and the life of Fr. Joseph Kentenich, the Movement’s founder. Schoenstatt gave him an answer to many of the questions which he carried in his heart. Those were the days when the so-called “theology of the death of God” was wreaking havoc. In the soul of our seminarian, Father Kentenich’s prophetic vision helped him to mature his reflection and gave him clear answers in life.
Schoenstatt fell into a virgin and Marian soul. Schoenstatt seemed to be innate in him, a vocation, as he would later tell us. That same year he sealed his Covenant of Love with the Mother and Queen Thrice Admirable of Schoenstatt. His apostolic work would be to win souls for Our Lady. He would travel on various occasions to Original Schoenstatt in Germany, where he would grow in his love for the Father and Founder and the Blessed Mother.
Having completed his theological studies at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in the Dominican Republic, he returned to Puerto Rico in 1974 to receive priestly Ordination. With him were his spiritual children, who already experienced him as a father. There were young vocations to priesthood, religious women, and lay people who intuited “something special” in that seminarian always given to the things of God.
He received the imposition of hands from His Eminence Luis Aponte Martínez, recently created Cardinal by Pope Paul VI. His Excellency Msgr. Giovanni Gravelli, Apostolic Delegate for Puerto Rico, was also present.
IN THE LAND OF THE POPE
After a few weeks in his homeland, he left for Rome. The hopes of his priesthood soon turned into a great cross. Rome was breathing airs little apt for a priesthood lived in holiness. The Pope suffered, as the entire Church suffered, on seeing the abundant secularizations. The priesthood was systematically challenged. There Fr. Anibal learned to love the Church and the priesthood in unconditional fidelity to the Supreme Pontiff.
It was the crisis of the religious life which he felt in living flesh. The “experiments” which turned into a torment for the Church of the Lord.
He also had to suffer marginalization from his peers, for not being “the same as them”, for sustaining permanent values which cannot be shirked. His purity was never stained, it flourished until his death, intact. The two asphyxiating years in Rome did not end up demoralizing him. He obtained his licentiate in theology with a specialty in religious life, Magna Cum Laude, at the Pontifical Lateran University. His licentiate thesis spoke of: “Religious Life and Liberation Theology”. His conclusions anticipated by ten years those sketched by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its document on Liberation Theology. And this, despite his renal crises, many of them suffered in the solitude of his room.
IN THE TOWN OF HIS BIRTH
After completing his studies, he returned to Puerto Rico, to the Parish of the Ascension of the Lord. His soul was in a continuous ascent of love, even when the cross was heavy for him. He shared his love with the hungry parishioners who sought and challenged him. His generosity would cause the envy of some. For him, it was all a suffering in silence.
He worked to consecrate hearts to the Mary in the Covenant of Love. He helped to extend Schoenstatt in Bayamón and wherever he found a devoted child of Mary.
His great dream was to form a group of native priests for the Church. He wanted to offer, from within his Community, valiant young men who would give their lives for a priesthood lived authentically. Day and night, without pause, he searched for those young men. It didn’t matter if he went a whole day without eating or drinking; it was worth it if it meant consecrating a young man to God.
The small group of vocations grew. The Provincial Chapter sent him to the Dominican Republic, to the House of Formation. He went there with the hope of preparing everything. But a bad-tempered people received him. They insulted and rejected him. It didn’t matter; love always knows how bring out love. He suffered, not for himself, but because his youth in formation had to grow in an environment of contradiction. On the streets they yelled at him: “A rat… You’re a rat.”
Around that time, Hurricane David hit. The Dominican Republic was leveled. Fr. Anibal got on a plane to collect clothing and medicine for those people. Even for those who called him a rat. Love knows not limits: he risked his life, traveled in the cargo compartment…
After the hurricane, they moved to the new Seminary in the outskirts of the capital. The house was much more welcoming, but the Lord didn’t stop testing him with the Cross. There, he suffered two cases of hepatitis which agonized him. Months of pain, of injections, of hives which consumed him from head to toe. There was no moral or physical relief. And when he entered a coma and all said that it was the end of his years, that “LADY” visited him, as he told us. He composed the song “Madre de la Luz” (Mother of the Light), his hymn of Love and gratitude to Mary, with the sweet sigh that She bring him to Jesus.
Little by little, the voice of God made itself felt more strongly in his soul. Father Baldomero had insisted for years that he leave and found. It was his great night of faith… His will face to face with the Will of God. He only knew how to be faithful. He surrendered himself. He had to save something of his endless days of vocational work. And accept the most painful Cross of founding. Thus it was. He accepted his “failure” as founder, his “antiquated” style… He only wanted to love… to disappear… to sink his life into the furrow of that Cross which he presented to the Blessed Virgin.
THE PAINFUL PATH OF FOUNDATION
On June 1, 1981, he arrived in Campo Alegre, a sector of the municipality of Hatillo. Rural and rustic. He arrived ill… in order to begin. And first of all, to mold his own spirit. On August 15, 1981, at 10:00 AM, the bishop proceeded with the erection of the new fraternity of the “Servants of the Holy Eucharist and of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
But it wasn’t an easy beginning. Everything remained to be done. He slept on the floor, there wasn’t any food, the people didn’t accept him well at first. There were complaints and petitions in the Chancery. Fr. Anibal dispelled it all with his smile and his love… Much love, virtuous, strong, and virile, flaming, warm… true love.
And thus he began to construct a material and spiritual structure under the burst of incomprehension and his illness which wore away at him. Months and months prostrate, chewing at his powerlessness; grasping for the wise guidance of God, the maternal presence of the Virgin in his work.
Hell made itself felt. Hell irrupted, wishing to destroy Fr. Anibal and his Work. Many times it impeded his prayer, other times it threw him from his bed or in his illness fought with him. And — why not? — it threw him down the stairs when the community was doing spiritual reading. But above all, it fought with the instruments he used, in order to deceive him or mercilessly injure him, offend him, rise up against him; persecution and slander.
His prophetic outlook was lifted away in the distance, above the mantle of the darkness with which they wanted to clothe his soul. For this reason, he wished to leave, high on the hill, the Shrine of the Mother Thrice Admirable, Queen and Victress of Schoenstatt. It was to be the great flag of victory. He always knew that only in the shadow of the Shrine could his small family win the battles which awaited it. He wanted a new, priestly, unconquered race… Therefore, a Marian race, living on the power of the Covenant of Love.
THE SUNSET IN THE FLAMES OF LOVE
Little by little the small giant wore away physically. His body could not respond to the impetus of the inner fire which burned him. The way toward eternity began to open through pain and Love, in a cry of Eucharistic-Marian slavery for the Church.
The great test came to him at the end, with the taste of defamation and slander. They accused him before the bishop, they openly defamed him. It was the prelude of the end and his “great cross,” as he called it. It was his night of the spirit… God’s final purifications of his holy soul. However, his writings and talks from this period above all transmit calm, the swift flight of eagles, the climate of the heights…
The spiritual marriage had been consummated. What was left? “To tear the curtain” of faith, to give way to vision… Face to face.
October 7th… On its eve, his Eucharist was his swan song. And his soul’s confession of love, thirsting for light, to Mary: “I love you with soul, life, and heart, for that reason alone: because you are my Mother…” Like a child seeking rest, he asked Her to rock him to sleep and awaken him in Heaven. That day at the tomb of Father Joseph Kentenich, his sons were sealing their Covenant of Love with Mary. The course ideal: “In fidelity to the Father.” They didn’t know that their Father Anibal was already in heaven.
He fell asleep and awoke to eternity on October 7th, a rainy and death-stricken day for Puerto Rico: it was the day of the great catastrophe of Mameyes.
On January 27, 1986, his tomb was opened to move his mortal remains to the mausoleum behind the Shrine. The smell of roses, incense… but also a true odor which lasts, exuded by a body generously offered in suffering.
His tomb is a place of pilgrimage for many. He guides them to the source of his holiness: the Shrine, the Covenant of Love with Mary and the Father and Founder of Schoenstatt, Joseph Kentenich. Among others, it was visited by Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
The grain of wheat which offered its life for Schoenstatt flourishes… and goes on giving fruits… We hope for his prompt glorification…