Haiti - This article covers daily life (crime, poverty, illiteracy, etc), the importance [and poverty] of the Church, vocations and youth.
by Cecilia Bromley-Martin
When Pope John Paul II visited Haiti in 1983, he announced “Things must change here”. Tragically, little has.
Decades of corruption, violence and political turmoil have left this island nation – one of the Caribbean’s top tourist destinations in the 1950s – a land of destitution. While a tiny minority control almost half the country’s national revenue, two-thirds of the population are unemployed. In the towns, electricity is sporadic; in the countryside, it is non-existent. Drug smuggling is rife, prisons are full and lawlessness abounds; a few hours after we left the town of Mirebalais, the magistrate was murdered. With no army and an understaffed, largely corrupt police force, the citizens simply take justice into their own hands. One day we witnessed a band of people in the street beating two men with sticks; others accused of more serious crimes may be stoned or burnt to death. “We have popular justice in this country,” explained one person, who preferred to remain nameless. “Everyone has to judge everyone. This is President Aristide’s influence.”
In the countryside, almost everyone lives in a state of abject poverty. Families are large and many parents cannot even afford $1 a term for school fees. In a lot of children, an orange tinge to their hair betrays the malnourishment which afflicts 62 per cent of Haitians. Even in the capital, Port-au-Prince, which devours 90 per cent of the country’s so-called budget, filth and rubbish line the streets – along with hopeful market traders, and the homeless. Violence is a daily occurrence, and an estimated two-thirds of the city’s population live in slums.
“If we cope, it’s thanks to our faith,” one priest told me. “Socially and politically, there is no solution; the people’s hope is only in the Church.”
It was hard to argue with this assertion, after attending a crowded 5.30am weekday Mass, or witnessing hundreds of parishioners gathering to pray the rosary together each night in May. Haiti is officially a Catholic country, and in many of the more remote, cut-off parishes, dynamic young priests almost single-handedly provide the strength and encouragement that their people need. “We have no water, no electricity, no secondary school, no hospital - just a badly-equipped dispensary,” said Père Jean-Alick, whose parish of Irois felt as if it lay at the end of the world. “We don’t even have any police here. We are a long way from everything; we are an abandoned town. And the people are very, very poor. At Sunday Mass the collection is usually about 50 gourdes [£1.40]. Some of my parishioners don’t even have a house.”
So it is to Père Jean-Alick that they always turn for help and consolation. And yet the Church in Haiti is so poor that it is sometimes the clergy who have to depend on the faithful for their daily survival. One parish priest admitted to me: “The people are so poor - there is no possibility of buying furniture for my house. I have no wardrobe, so I have to keep my clothes on the floor. We do not have enough chairs for our meetings.” He rarely has any means of his own, and relies on the parishioners for food – even then, no meal is guaranteed. “When my people live wretchedly, then so do I. When you have nothing, you cannot choose.” So it is little surprise that the thousands of Mass stipends which Aid to the Church in Need provides for priests in Haiti every year are often literally life-savers. “For the last six months, we have only survived on your Mass intentions,” one priest said. “Without them, those of us in the poorest parishes would have had nothing to keep us alive.”
And yet there are numerous vocations in Haiti. Although only about the size of Wales, the country boasts over 200 students at the major seminary, and dozens more young men in the minor and propadeutic seminaries. “To be a priest is a vocation, a call of God,” I was told. “If you do it with generosity and with heart, you don’t feel the hardship. A pastor loves God and his priestly mission; even if there is no road, he will walk and ride for hours to take the Good News to the people. In Haiti, everyone recognises how much the Church manages to do with very little means.”
Nor did any of the seminarians I met appear to be daunted by the rigours they will face in their lifelong ministry. “The joy my heart feels cannot be put into words,” said Jean-Lucien, anticipating his imminent ordination. “When God calls us, He gives us all the means we need to face up to whatever awaits us in life. We must trust in God. It is important to go and meet the people with their difficulties: they expect something from us – Christ.”
One of the priority groups to whom the Church wishes to bring Christ is the country’s youth. As many teenagers are tempted by drugs or prostitution as a way of overcoming the poverty and despair of a life with no future, each diocese is setting out to show them that there is an alternative - often with significant results.
In Fort Liberté, a special Youth Congress this Easter attracted no less than 8,000 participants, many undertaking long, costly and exceedingly uncomfortable journeys from around the country in order to be there. “I have had many echoes from the congress,” the organiser, Fr Lourdy Dorismond, told me. “Priests come and tell me that the young people who were there returned to their parishes and got together other youngsters and organised local sessions. The youth is the future of the Church; we have to give them another way of life - not drugs or prostitution - they must know that there is another way.”
With half the population of Haiti currently under 16-years-old, there is no doubt that - if the Holy Father’s pronouncement that “things must change here” is to be heeded - it will be through the youth of today that this will, one day, have to happen. And it seems to be only the Church which is capable of providing the strength and hope required for that future vision. One priest explained: “I believe in hope, and I know hope doesn’t disappoint. But sometimes I wonder where this hope comes from. Is it from the men in power who fight? Is it from Heaven? Is it from the Haitians themselves? Or from outside? No. It is the Church.
“If one day the Church decides to shut its doors here, there will be complete despair.”
Cecilia Bromley-Martin works for the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need
Photo: A poor mother (with her twins) being helped by Fr Jean-Alick Revanche. Irois parish, Jeremie.