On Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2010, a few minutes before 5 in the afternoon, an earthquake devastated Haiti, leaving at least 230,000 dead and affecting more than 3 million in a population of 9 million.
Almost four years later, ZENIT sat down with Bishop Pierre-André Dumas of Anse-a-Veau et Miragoane, who was in Rome on a short visit at the end of 2013, invited by the Sant’Egidio Community, to preside over one of 32 round tables on “The Defense of Weak Life.”
Bishop Dumas told ZENIT that after a moment of great openness, with the passing of the weeks there was a return to “normality” in a situation of great deterioration, a normality that became resignation, passivity, pessimism and fatalism. Despite this, the local Church understood that it was a test and that, detached from the constructions and buildings that give dignity, the situation called for concentration on the evangelical message.
The situation is still dramatic, with close to 200,000 people living in tents, but there is a notable increase in vocations and in parishes, where faith is being lived in a more genuine way and in a spirit of great solidarity, he said. Today the strength of the Haitian people is their faith in God, which helps them to stand up and look at the future with hope.
ZENIT: What is the situation like in Haiti after the earthquake?
Bishop Dumas: January 12 is four years since the earthquake in Haiti, in which almost 300,000 people died, which witnessed almost 1.2 million living in tents in a country that has less than 10 million inhabitants, leaving many families in a situation of great fragility. In addition to the displacements from provinces, they lost everything and
ZENIT: And today?
Bishop Dumas: Today there is slow growth in Haiti, with a few small symptoms of improvement of life. Some people have left the tents, but there is still much to do; suffice it to think that at least some 200,000 people still live in them. “Tents are OK for a week of camping, but not for such a long time.”
ZENIT: How do people see the Church?
Bishop Dumas: Today the strength of the people of Haiti is their faith in God, which helps them to stand up and look at the future with hope. In addition to concrete actions, such as those of the local Caritas and the leadership that the Church gives the weakest. In this connection we can say that the presence of the Church in Haiti is a blessing for the people. Moreover, there is great confidence in the Church in Haiti, increased by the political crisis.
ZENIT: When everything collapsed, the Church was practically the only thing that remained, no?
Bishop Dumas: The Church lost everything at the level of buildings, but she remained standing because she is more than a building, because we took her inside – the “ecclesia” that lives through the community and which found greater rigor given that she has nothing material left, including those buildings and goods that give dignity. We have only the essential, as Pope Francis preaches. The only thing that remained was the strength of the faith.
ZENIT: What difference do you see, before and after this tragedy, in the population’s life of faith?
Bishop Dumas: There never was well-being in Haiti. Then the earthquake took everything. Immediately after, given the extent of the events, many thought that all would have understood the disaster as a message from God to take up the faith again. In fact the first days we saw that all were more solidaristic, virtuous, generous, one next to the other. But man is man, and the old man returns and after a few weeks there is a return to normality within the disaster.
ZENIT: In other words, to live in “normality” in a situation of disaster is worse than the previous normality?
Bishop Dumas: Yes, and it’s necessary to return to the evangelical values, because it is a normality that becomes resignation, passivity, pessimism and fatalism. Here is where the message of the Church comes in, which makes it understood that is wasn’t a punishment but a natural phenomenon; it is a test to grow. And in addition, we must discern what positive message there might be.
We can become co-actors of our history with God, if we have a look of faith in face of the events we experience. The Church in Haiti had an operation, a process of catharsis, of purification, so as not to be attached to the cathedral of Port-au-Prince or the beautiful buildings, but to be attached to Christ and his message, to the values of the Gospel, to the goal of life and ultimate things. And above all, with humility, the Church in Haiti might perhaps have something to contribute to the whole of the universal Church. As Alfred de Vigner said: “No one knows himself if he has not suffered,” the great suffering of a martyred people, not, of course, the only ones in the world. Other peoples also live the situation of Christ crucified.
ZENIT: Are people more open to preaching or not necessarily so?
Bishop Dumas: In the first moments of the earthquake some thought that with this disaster the people would be more open to the Christian message. And, in fact, they were so initially, but as time went on that openness began to disappear.
That is why we place the accent on the continental mission of Latin America, on the pastoral ministry of proximity, on the pastoral conversion of the pastors or of the structures that help them to encounter Christ, and on individual spiritual conversion and social communitarian
ZENIT: In these cases there are also the prophets of doom.
Bishop Dumas: Only one radio station remained standing and I had to travel kilometers to go to explain to people that is wasn’t a punishment from God; that it was a phenomenon from which we could grow within ourselves and make our faith grow. And not to listen to the prophets of doom that say that you are greater sinners than others. And I recalled when Jesus spoke about the tower in Galilee. And I asked them to manifest solidarity. And I asked Caritas’ volunteers for a meeting the following day at their headquarters to coordinate the aid.
ZENIT: In the last Synod there was talk of the parish not only as a place of prayer …
Bishop Dumas: Yes, a living community of life, in which celebrations are held where the people are, where there is a community; where our sufferings and joys, and the Passion, Death and Resurrection of the Lord are celebrated. To realize that it is not the building that makes the Church, although churches are useful and were built not because they had money but because they were an expression of the faith.
ZENIT: How has Caritas acted?
Bishop Dumas: At first, it was Haitians and the Church that initiated local solidarity, and this was spontaneous to support those affected. I lived it up close being President of Haiti’s Caritas. They had an incredible role, the first to arrive were the Latin Americans, then Cardinal Madariaga arrived, who was the new President of the International Caritas, and he helped us to understand the meaning of this intervention of the Church, making us see that the Church must sustain the people’s hope and at the same time join efforts to reach the people. And we really thank the Caritas network for its capacity to intervene with volunteers who came from Mexico, Italy, Spain and also from countries of Africa in difficulty.
ZENIT: What can be done for Haiti in addition to not forgetting it?
Bishop Dumas: Solidarity must always be maintained. When there is a brother suffering in a family it’s not possible to abandon him. And Haiti has a long history of suffering, which began with slavery. There is need of permanent solidarity respecting subsidiarity, be it at the local level or that of international aid.
ZENIT: And vocations?
Bishop Dumas: It’s a grace of God. In my diocese, the new diocese of Ensaveaux in Miragua we now have almost 35 seminarians and many applications. We were 18 priests and now we are 40 and I see much harmony at the level of the clergy.
In 2010 we had 13 parishes; today there are 28 parishes. We have understood that the call for a Church closer to the people can run the risk of sending a priest where people live without the need of so many structures. Then if God sends them, let them come. The point is that if spirituality is lacking, there isn’t even humanity.
ZENIT: What does the Church in Haiti offer its people?
Bishop Dumas: This is why today the Church says to the people of Haiti crucified in its tragic history: “I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ, walk!”[Translation by ZENIT]