Mass in Rome to Mark Anniversary of Haiti

Organized by Vatican, Haitian Embassy to Holy See

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JAN. 10, 2011 ( The year 2010 opened to one of the greatest disasters in recorded history, the earthquake that devastated Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010. The destructive force of the earthquake and its 50 aftershocks overwhelmed the area north of Port-au-Prince, the most populated area of the country. An estimated 230,000 people were killed and one million left homeless out of a population of 9 million. 

While 2011 has got off to a relatively less catastrophic start, Haiti’s tragedy still remains on many minds. To record the one-year anniversary of the earthquake, the Vatican and the Haitian Ambassador to the Holy See, S. E. Jean-Henri Guiteau, are sponsoring a special Mass to be held in the Patriarchal Basilica of St. Mary Major on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011, at 4:30 in the afternoon. The principal celebrant will be Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Benedict XVI’s secretary of state, and the general public is more than welcome. 

Haiti was already the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere when the earthquake decimated its infrastructures, homes and commerce. Although the world response was immediate and generous, Haiti’s road to recovery was destined to be long and arduous. Disaster struck Haiti again this Fall, however, when in October a cholera epidemic spread throughout the same region, taking more lives from this already beleaguered population. Then in November, Hurricane Tomas hit the island adding more impediments to the recontruction. 

Benedict XVI was among the first to respond last January, when hours after the disaster, he broke the news at his general audience, calling for prayers for the victims. The Pope promised that “Catholic Church will not fail to move immediately, through her charitable institutions, to meet the most immediate needs of the population.”

He appointed the US-based Catholic Relief Services to oversee the Church’s participation in assisting the afflicted country. The agency had already been working in Haiti for 55 years. To date Catholic Relief Services has received more than $190 million for Haiti relief and reconstruction; $159 million came from private donors, (including the Gates foundation and New York Yankees). Another $80 million was collected from Catholic dioceses across the United States. 

Spiritual relief

But more than money is needed for this suffering nation. While the Church has spared no effort for the physical relief of Haiti, her greatest concern is for its souls. 

This Mass, bringing together the diplomatic corps of many nations, the members of the Curia and a myriad of faithful is intended for the souls of the dead, taken suddenly by the earthquake, as well as for the survivors as they overcome loss and adversity while trying to rebuild their nation. 

Among the many who lost their lives, there was also the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Joseph Serge Miot, whose body was discovered under the rubble of the cathedral together with the Vicar General Monsignor Charles Benoit. Thirty seminarians were also killed. 

The setting for this Mass could not be better chosen. St Mary Major, the oldest church dedicated to Mary in the West, honors the Blessed Virgin as Mother of God and Mother of the Church. This ancient basilica, entirely decorated with mosaics of the promise of salvation, contains one of the Church’s most precious icons, the Madonna Salus Populi Romani, Our Lady of the salvation of the Roman people. 
The icon has always been associated with good health, ever since Pope Gregory the Great carried it aloft during the great plague of 590, but also refers the care of the souls of the universal Church. Copies of this icon were carried to China by the first missionaries and have travelled the world over ever since to bring the promise of salvation to the most isolated, the most distant and the most devastated.

The New Year brings promise of renewal, it is a period of fresh starts and new resolutions, from Rome, a city that has known destruction and renewal many times over, the Church sends prayers to assist Haiti to rise greater in both structure and spirit than before. 

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at

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