Prior to January 12, 2010, the name automatically evoked images of immense poverty, exploitation, political corruption, and social unrest.
It will now forever suggest the notion of catastrophic disaster, ominously ranked among the worst earthquakes in recent history: the Sichuan, China quake of 2008 that killed 70,000; the Kashmir quake of 2005 that left 90,000 dead, and the Indian Ocean quake of 2004 the killed 230,000 people. Haiti was still recovering from the deadly hurricanes that ravished the country in 2008 when the quake struck.
I am sure we all had a similar experience last week: sipping our coffee over breakfast, reading the tales of despair and horror in the morning newspaper, or watching the endless images of bodies, bloodied children, and devastation streaming over the cable news stations -- how could we not be overwhelmed by a sense of frustration at our own inadequacy or inability to come to the immediate aid of those in need? And we could only be consoled that amidst the devastation, there were also miracles.
Most of us recall the recent history of the western hemisphere's poorest nation. Following a coup d'etat in September 1991, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was flown into exile. Three years later, the country narrowly averted a U.S. invasion when 11th hour diplomatic efforts managed to excise the military junta and restore Aristide to power. Aristide was eventually removed from power by the U.S. military in 2004. In May of 2006, Rene Préval became the president of a country which today, in the words of Archbishop Timothy Dolan, lies before us as "the broken and bloodied body of Jesus in the arms of his blessed mother."
The populace is largely Catholic, and the Church there has paid a heavy toll: Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot, age 63, known as a humble shepherd who cherished the poor of the Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince, was among the tens of thousands of Haitians who died in the quake. The vicar general of Port-au-Prince, Monsignor Charles Benoit, as well as the chancellor were unaccounted for by the end of last week. The archdiocesan offices, the seminary, and the Cathedral all lie in ruins.
It is not easy to write about this tragedy. Observations about "the challenges now facing the people of Haiti" and how recovery will require "the generosity of the international community and the private sector" though true enough, sound so trite and academic.
It is only natural to wonder, however: once the dead have been buried, and rescuers have provided shelter, blankets, food, water and bandages to the survivors, who will rebuild Haiti? Dare we entertain the hope that the international community will take advantage of this juncture in history to build a new Haiti? Could western leaders find motives to bring about the kind of stunning recovery that transformed the charred remains of Chicago -- leveled by the great fire of 1871 -- into the city that hosted the Chicago's World Fair in 1893, only twenty-two years later? Thankfully, this pitiful country can in fact count on the Haitian Diaspora and Haiti's other numerous friends throughout the world. It can also count on the Catholic Church and Catholic Relief Services. In the U.S. alone, almost $6 million dollars was donated as of last Friday to CRS, and second collections all around the country last weekend add to that.
Of course the seeds of Haiti's rise from the ashes and transformation into a self-sufficient and prosperous nation lie in much more than western capital. The future lies in the goodness and determination of the Haitian people themselves. On Saturday, the doorbell rang at the rectory. The Haitian father of one of our school children, a distinguished man in his mid forties, stood at the door. He did not come by seeking consolation or assistance; we only found out by asking him that he did in fact have one family member, an aunt, who perished in the quake. This good man stopped by our rectory to offer us his condolences for the loss of Archbishop Miot, and of our other brother priests and seminarians who were killed. It is such nobility and magnanimity of heart that characterizes these good people, and that offers the best grounds for believing there will be a bright new future for Haiti.
Father Thomas Berg is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie). More of Fr. Berg’s publications are available at www.fatherberg.com.