Haiti’s capital is a giant tomb.
According to estimates, hundreds of thousands of people died in the Jan. 12 earthquake that flattened 75 percent of the city of Port-au-Prince, but the United Nations says the final death toll may never be known. The bodies of the dead fill mass graves, or still lie rotting under mountains of concrete rubble and twisted steel.
One of the first corpses pulled from the wreckage was the city’s Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot, 63, who died when the earthquake hurled him from a balcony onto the street below.
So his funeral, celebrated 11 days after the earthquake in the open air in front of the capital’s largely collapsed Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, and drawing Church leaders from across Haiti and the United States, in some ways served to entrust to God’s mercy all the souls of the quake’s victims, known and unknown.
It also marked an attempt by the Church in the majority Catholic country to turn the focus on the future, even while the present is so uncertain.
“God had something to say, and he said it here,” said the funeral’s homilist, Port-au-Prince Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Lafontant. “He did it because he wants Haiti to become a new country.”
The funeral was also for the archdiocese’s vicar general, Msgr. Charles Benoit, who was found still clutching a container with a Host when his corpse was pulled from the rubble. All in all, according to Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, Fla., who also was at the funeral, the Haitian Church lost six priests, more than two dozen sisters and almost 50 seminarians, in addition to countless laity.
But right now the greatest concern is for those who are still living. “What people seem to be saying is every day is a little less worse than the day before, not necessarily better,” said Bishop Wenski, who for years as a priest ministered to Haitian communities in the United States and knows the country well. “For a good majority of Haitians, every day is a struggle for food and water.”
Another U.S. churchman at the funeral was New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, chairman of the board of Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ international humanitarian aid arm, which has a decades-long presence in Haiti. He assured the thousands gathered that Catholic Americans would not ignore their plight.
“In the United States, our televisions, computers and newspapers have been filled with images of your unspeakable pain, suffering and loss,” Archbishop Dolan told them. “Each hour we see the faces of the widows and orphans and all of those who have lost family and friends and all of their life’s possessions.”
He said the U.S. Church was committed to “doing everything we can so that you may rebuild and renew and begin again your lives of faith and family and service to Haiti.”
The response of Haitians to the crisis gives Bishop Wenski hope for the future.
“As I looked over the city and the people at the funeral, they seemed united in their sufferings, because no one was spared,” he said. “It was a disaster that did not just afflict one social or economic class. It hit everybody in a place that has seen generations of great social, economic and political divisions.”
Bishop Wenski said there was no obvious security around at the funeral.
“It was dignified. There wasn’t too much chaos from the streets intruding on the funeral,” he said. “It was somber. There was some makeshift awning to give some people and the coffins shade. They opened the casket of the archbishop at the beginning of Mass, and blessed his body. You could see how his head was damaged from the earthquake.”
Hopefully, the Haitian people will overcome divisions that have characterized them in the past to move the country forward after this, the bishop said.
“There have been massive outflows to the countryside where many people have roots and family, and some of those places are going to be experiencing real issues of food security and need for medications.”
Léogane, a town about 15 miles west of the capital, for example, was destroyed, and its needs were largely unknown.
Bishop Wenski said that he is likely to return to Haiti in a month or so in his capacity as a member of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Latin America.
“We will be concerned about rebuilding the Church’s infrastructure, which is damaged at all of its churches and schools, and to bring back parish life and figure out how to reopen schools and churches and the seminary, so the Church can continue to serve the Haitian people,” Bishop Wenski said.
Tom Tracy, who traveled to Haiti on assignment for Our Sunday Visitor after the earthquake, writes from Florida.
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