“If He kept us alive, He wanted to tell us something”.
Japan and Haiti, although dissimilar economically and culturally, share similar physical geography and an unfortunate susceptibility to earthquakes. Both nations suffered the consequences of powerful earthquakes killing tens of thousands and displacing millions. With the experience of one year following the Haiti earthquake, Msgr. Joseph Lafontant, Apostolic Administrator and Auxiliary Bishop of Port-au-Prince in Haiti, speaks about the lingering psychological and spiritual influences of this natural disaster on the faith of the Haitian people.
(Msgr. Joseph Lafontant, Apostolic Administrator and Auxiliary Bishop of Port-au-Prince in Haiti (left) with Archbishop Louis Kébreau of Cap-Haitien )
Q) With all the destruction what were the psychological effects of the 2010 earthquake?
A) They thought Haiti was finished - that was the initial reaction. The Haitian people, however, have what we usually call voloir vivre - the desire to live. They say: “Alright this was destroyed. We have to rebuild”. They did not think first of the public places, they thought of their small houses, though not all small houses were destroyed. They panic when they see you put a brick roof on now. That is why they live under tents, under plastic roofs because they are afraid of the aftershocks. There were a lot of aftershocks, not of the same impact, but enough to injure people.
Q) Are the people asking themselves: Why us?
A) They have been asking that question all over: “Why us? We are such a poor country. We are living in such poor conditions”, but finally they said: “This happened. It is Mother Nature. We have to keep our faith in God, because God is the one who leads, is the one who mandates. So we will keep our faith in God. We are alive, so many died. If He kept us alive, He wanted to tell us something”. In the very beginning, solidarity was unique in that country.
Q).....Between the people?
A) Yes, for instance: people who did know where and how to telephone turned to people on the streets who said: “Here is a phone, call your relatives”. Others would take people lying on the street away from the ruble; solidarity is again part of us. Solidarity has been part of our culture, but now it is even stronger.
Q) To go further on this point, are they not asking themselves? This is the wrath of God. We deserve it somehow or God is punishing us for something. Is there also this sense and what is your response?
A) That has been said by people from other churches. We Catholics have an answer to that: “God is not someone who takes revenge; who punishes, on the contrary, He saves. He does not stop the laws of Mother Nature”. After the quake, people started coming back to their churches. What we did - because we had a radio station – Radio Soleil - we had a priest coming everyday to explain the phenomenon and not letting the people believe or accept the explanation about God’s punishment, no. On the contrary, on this occasion they explained to the people: “We have to be better people because everybody is in the same situation”.
Q).....rich and the poor?
A)....rich and the poor; burials, no caskets available, everybody was on the same level. That caused people to reflect and some of them spoke to me directly. They said: “You know Bishop, I became a different person after the quake because I’m alive and I realized that my possessions are nothing. Being alive is more than anything I possess, so from now on I won’t wear jewelry. I won’t be concerned about how I look. I won’t be concerned about how my house looks; the way I live because life must be different”. So it’s some sort of a renewed Haitian that was born after the quake.
(In prayer before the Cross of the Cathedral still standing after the quake)
Q) Do you see a revival of faith?
A) Not only a revival but the strengthening of faith. It is curious when you consider all the parishes where the churches collapsed, people under the tents and under the sky; they came to pray especially during Lent. You know something about the Haitian people; they love to go to the Way of the Cross every Friday during Lent. And funnily enough they would come to confession on Holy Thursday and Communion and would accuse themselves of missing three Stations of the Cross for three Fridays in a row, but they won’t tell about missing Mass three times.
Q) Why are the Stations of the Cross so important?
A) Because in the Way of the Cross, they see themselves. They can relate to the suffering of Christ: Being lied to, despised, spat upon, crushed. Suffering is part of their history and their being, of their idiosyncrasy, so they relate to what is happening. Some people even have tears in their eyes when they go to the Way of the Cross.
Q) The Church has suffered a particular Way of the Cross. The Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, the Vicar General, the Chancellor, religious, priests and 14 Seminarians were killed. How do you overcome this human cost?
A) We have to overcome it because those who are still alive must continue. Take for instance the Seminarians. They are studying again under tents to ensute that their Academic year was not lost. Prior to resuming their studies, however, they met with a psychologist because many of them were pulled out of the ruble; two of them from our Diocese, one had a leg amputated and the other had his arm amputated. They still want to live. They still want to study. They still want to continue.
Q).... but they need psychological help?
A) Yes of course, and they are getting it. We have a priest who is from the Holy Cross congregation. He spent two hours with them about the trauma; after two hours he said that he needed to see about 10 of them in particular. Other dioceses did the same thing; they had meetings and outings with them in order to free their minds.
Q) What is the psychological weight on these young men? Do they feel guilty that they survived and were pulled out alive?
A) No, they do not feel guilty for having survived. On the contrary, they feel privileged and as I have been telling them: “If you feel privileged, you have to, for you and for the people you are going to be sent to for pastoral work, be a different seminarian - be a different priest”. And I said that to the priests: “Now you are living the people’s situation, you are under tents, you do not have enough to eat, some of you have lost your possessions and you have come out with what you’ve got on”. So I tell them: “In my opinion, it’s a call from God that we have to be different. We have to be a different type of priest that lives a little more with the people and understands them better”. This is important.
Q) What touched you the most out of all the human tragedy with which you have been confronted?
A) Personally, it was the death of the Archbishop. We have been working together for so long. We were together at the Episcopal Conference before he became the bishop. We were together in the Seminary when I was the rector of that major Seminary. When he was appointed we started working together until his death. So we worked as brothers. We had a very, very good relationship and he trusted me a lot even if though I’m older in the episcopate, in the priesthood, and in age, but I always considered him my Archbishop, my superior. He considered me a good collaborator and that is the reason why really it was hard on me when I found that he died. When the first shock came you heard people screaming and running, he came out of the balcony telling them: “Don’t panic, calm down”; the second shock threw him down. That is how he died; it was ugly.
Q) Haitian people have a deep love for Our Lady - Our Lady of Perpetual Help. There has been an increase in the number of visits to the national shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Why is Our Lady important to the people and why are they now turning to her at this time of crisis?
A) Haiti has always been under the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Perpetual Help’s protection. The country was consecrated in the 1940’s and the bishops renewed that consecration in the 1990’s. The mother, in our culture, is someone very, very important. In many Haitian families - even common law - the mother is everything. The economy of the country is borne by the women. If a Haitian sees something wrong he will say: bonjour maman, which means “good day my mother”. The mother in this cultural idiosyncrasy is so important - the Haitian always goes to the mother because the mother understands. The mother, even when she is mad, will always provide. She is always present. The father is always running around, but the mother is always present. When they need something they go to the mother. She is there for them.
Q) That is why they are going to Our Lady?
A) Yes, and you know what? In the camps where parishes still function, instead of the churches that collapsed, practically every week hundreds of people come to ask for rosaries. I had received a bunch, which I gave to the priest and he said: “Don’t you have any more”? People come to ask for rosaries to pray to the Blessed mother.
This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for "Where God Weeps," a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. On the Net: www.wheregodweeps.org
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