SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Priests cut away small pieces of bone from an exhumed body last week, sacred relics that mean Puerto Rico is a step away - albeit a big step - from having its first saint.
Experts are confirming that the body belongs to Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, known as Charlie, an office worker and devout Roman Catholic who Pope John Paul II announced last week would be beatified April 29 with three Italian nuns and a Spanish priest.
Rodriguez, who died of colon cancer in 1963, will become the first person from the Caribbean and only the second Latin American layperson to be given the title of "blessed." He made it this far after the Catholic hierarchy was convinced that 18 years after his death, a woman who prayed for him to intercede was miraculously cured of cancer.
Juan Diego, the Mexican believed to have seen the Virgin of Guadalupe about 400 years ago, is the only other Latin American layperson beatified. For Rodriguez to be canonized, another miracle must be attributed to him after the beatification.
"As all Puerto Ricans, I'm full of joy," said Sister Haydee Rodriguez, 67, a nun who is also Charlie Rodriguez's youngest sister. "This means that in Puerto Rico we can live as God tells us, and it gives us an example of a person that was not a priest and who lived in a saintly way with Christ within him."
The Catholic Church and the Carlos M. Rodriguez Circle, which set out to achieve this in 1987, hope about 2,000 Puerto Ricans will travel to Rome for the beatification ceremony to be led by the pope.
A large picture of Rodriguez and 350,000 smaller ones will tour the island's churches to promote the beatification and ask people to pray for another miracle, so that he can become a saint.
The sacred items - pieces of bone and pieces of cloth rubbed over the bones - will be sent to the pope and distributed in Puerto Rico and Europe. Rodriguez will then be buried in the cathedral in Caguas, the central city where he grew up.
"He was a common man, a man of the streets who distinguished himself as living with cancer [since he was 13], but in the service and love of Christ," said Bishop Alvaro Corrada del Rio, the archbishop of Caguas.
A woman who attended a conference Rodriguez gave in the 1950s about sacrifice became a friend and witness to his close adherence to Catholic teachings. When doctors told her in 1981 that she would die of cancer - 18 years after Rodriguez had died of the disease at age 44 - she prayed to him.
Her cancer disappeared. After the Circle made the petition for sainthood for Rodriguez to the Vatican, a panel of medical experts headed by University of Puerto Rico President Norman Maldonado, an oncologist and hematologist, studied the case.
"We do not try to confirm there was a miracle, but we can certainly say that the cancer was cured without any medical intervention," Maldonado said.
Thirty-eight witnesses, including some non-Catholics, testified at an ecclesiastic tribunal about the miracle and about Rodriguez's life. Apparently, the clergy were convinced.
Rodriguez's disease forced him to drop out of college after one year.
An avid reader, self-taught in everything from theology and philosophy to Latin and music, he made a living as an office worker. But he spent the rest of his time spreading the Gospel.
"We knew him, and we knew he was a saint. He lived all the virtues to a heroic degree," said Carmen Santana de Aguilo, 65, a retired chemistry professor who is the Circle's co-president and treasurer.