HAITI – Without the Church, many villages have no hope
Marco Mencaglia, the head of the Haitian section of the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need, travelled to the country on a visit. His goal: to take stock of the aid the charity has granted over the last few years and to determine the future needs of the local church. According to the “Fragile States Index”1, Haiti is the country in the world most in danger of failing among those countries in which no war has recently been waged. It is ranked tenth in this index, even before such countries as Iraq or Pakistan. The interview was held by Maria Lozano.
What was your first impression when you arrived in Haiti?
Haiti is a country of extreme poverty. According to the latest statistics of the IMF, it is the poorest country in the world outside of Africa. Similar to other Latin American cities, the capital of Port-au-Prince is growing in a completely uncontrolled manner, especially at its newly created peripheries, where there are no basic provisions. Most people live from hand to mouth along the main roads, where they engage in black market trade, in hygienic and humanitarian conditions inconceivable to Europeans. The traffic, air pollution and population density are constantly on the rise in the capital – and have already become massive problems. The Haitian state is very weak. Its public presence is quite limited, especially in rural areas outside of the capital. In the language of its native inhabitants, Haiti means “Land of the High Mountains”. In many places, and especially in the remote mountain villages, the Catholic church is the only institution that consistently reaches out to help the inhabitants, despite all of the difficulties.
Has the generosity of the benefactors of Aid to the Church in Need made a noticeable impact?
I was able to see for myself just how important our support is in the training of seminarians. Currently, 315 candidates for the priesthood are living in the provisional housing set up at the national seminary of Port-au-Prince after the seminary was destroyed by the earthquake in 2010. Our help has become decisive for one of the few riches, for one of the few hopes of the country: the vocations to the priesthood. The bishops’ commitment to priest training as well as to an improved and careful selection of the candidates through a propaedeutic year offer good prospects for the future.
I would also like to point out how successful our help has been in enabling the use of solar energy in remote parishes. I was impressed that the church or presbytery was the only building in a 10 to 20 km radius with a stable supply of energy. We saw how hundreds of people came to the presbytery in the mornings to charge their mobile phones. In the evenings, the entire village gathered around the presbytery so as not to be plunged into total darkness. Light plays a decisive role in making it possible for these communities to have hope. The priests working in mountainous regions are isolated because these are areas that can only be reached via paths that are in a deplorable state, over which one sometimes has to travel by foot for an hour. Thanks to solar energy, the priests can maintain daily contact with the diocese and the world. Furthermore, the technical support and the quality of the equipment they have received from Germany have fully met the needs of the local church. Although the technology is simple, it is currently not available everywhere in the country.
What was the most poignant moment of your trip?
I was moved by the lives of the diocesan priests in Haiti. Their lives are, without a doubt, very difficult and they hold a great deal of responsibility. I was impressed by the dedication of many young priests, 25 to 30 years old, who have assumed their first positions in a parish. The conditions they live in can often be called dramatic and are beyond their abilities and strength. Despite this, they try not to lose their enthusiasm. As brothers and sisters in faith, it is our responsibility to not leave these young priests to their own devices by doing everything we possibly can to support the bishop as the shepherd of the shepherds. Haiti has many troubles; misery can be seen everywhere. These young men represent hope. Their enthusiasm and their love for the church are a light within the darkness that we need to keep alive.
You probably heard many testimonials during your trip. Which of these would you choose as a sign of hope?
The football game that was held at the national stadium after the earthquake: police officers played against priests. The game found unbelievable resonance in the country’s media. Many still remember it. Despite the many difficulties, the Haitians have not lost their enthusiasm – especially not for football, the national sport. The recently appointed Bishop Desinord Jean was one of the players on the priests’ team. He promoted the game on the diocesan radio station “Radio Soleil”, which he managed at the time. He was still visibly moved when he told us that after the police officers had scored six goals, the overflowing stadium celebrated the only goal made by the priests with ear-splitting excitement.
You learn a lot from the local churches on a trip like this. Which statement do you remember best?
“The foundation of a new parish is a moment of hope, means joy for the entire village.” This was said by Father Barthelemy Feuille, a priest at Fond Rouge in the Jeremie diocese. The growing presence of the Catholic church is palpable all over the country. Thanks to the great number of vocations to the priesthood, each diocese establishes one to two new parishes each year. One example: the Jacmel and Hinche dioceses, both of which were founded in 1988, has grown from 9 to 29 and 10 to 44 parishes, respectively, in 30 years. The foundation of a new parish is a moment of great hope, not only for Catholics but for the entire population. A veritable, but positive, competition has developed between the chapels to be elevated to parish status. Because the arrival of a priest also means access to basic provisions in places forgotten by the government: a school that is run in the church building during the week, a vehicle for emergencies and to transport the sick to the hospital, a connection to the world outside… For thousands of communities in Haiti, the priest and the church represent the soul and hope.
What are the next steps that the international pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need has planned for Haiti?
On 4 October 2016, the terrifying and powerful hurricane Matthew wreaked great havoc across the country – it was the worst in 50 years. The western part of the country was especially hard hit: the Jeremie, Cayes and partially also the Anse-à-Veau, Jacmel, Port-au-Prince and Port-de-Paix dioceses. In Jeremie and Cayes, 90% of the parish houses suffered damage to their roofs or masonry. More than 200 chapels located in mountain villages in the two dioceses were completely destroyed. For the next few months, Aid to the Church in Need has made it a priority to work together with other organisations to provide emergency relief for rebuilding or for repair work. In most communities, the church is the only building in which not only pastoral events but also social ones can be held. Without exaggerating, we can claim that without the church, many of these villages do not have any hope for the future.
Maria Lozano – ACN International