All of us have been horrified in recent weeks by the scenes of death and destruction in Haiti, and millions have sought for a way to alleviate the suffering there. No doubt many homilies have been given to help us understand how a loving God could allow such a tragedy.
One “explanation” in the United States came from a Protestant evangelist who stated that Haiti had been “cursed” ever since its founders had “sworn a pact with the devil” to achieve the nation’s independence from France. His comments, as one might expect, caused a storm of controversy.
Certainly, there is ample evidence in the Old Testament of nations being punished by God for idolatry, and some Christians continue to look to this Old Testament history for explanations of world events.
However, Catholics today are more likely to look in a different direction to understand how God deals with human sinfulness. And they need look no further than the crucifix above the altar in their church. God has freely and lovingly united himself with human suffering in the sacrifice of his Son upon the cross.
Those evangelists who so often quote John 3:16 might also remember what is said in the next verse: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”
The tragedy in Haiti is likely to have long-lasting effects, not only for the people who have lost loved ones there, but for an entire generation that has witnessed its destruction. As such, it is important that we get the right understanding of what has occurred.
Many news reports compare Haiti to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. Gulf Coast region or the recent floods in the Philippines. There is one similarity that I think is worth pointing out: In Haiti, as in the Philippines or on the Gulf Coast, there has been an outpouring of giving by the members of the Knights of Columbus.
Haiti is today a test of our faith in God and our commitment to our fellow man. So far, Knights have kept their commitment and have shown the true meaning of the first principle of our Order: charity.
In thinking about Haiti, I could not help but consider the work of St. Damien of Molokai, “the Leper Priest,” who was canonized last fall by Pope Benedict XVI. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Molokai, Hawaii, and while visiting a church there I saw a photograph of an elderly woman taken in the 1930s. She had lost her ears, nose, and all of her fingers and toes to leprosy. She was also blind. Yet, I was told, she prayed the rosary every day by holding the beads between her teeth.
Not long after that, I spoke to a missionary priest who mentioned that he had opened a home for people suffering from leprosy. Each day as he celebrates Mass there, an elderly man, also blind from the disease, says during the prayers of the faithful, “Father, God, thank you for all the good things you have given me.”
Philosophers and theologians will continue to search for explanations concerning the problem of suffering in the world. Perhaps the best answer, though, comes from those whose suffering goes beyond what we are able to imagine. These believers experience the reality that God has united himself to them in their suffering.
In his homily during the canonization Mass of Father Damien, Benedict XVI said: “Jesus invites his disciples to the total giving of their lives, without calculation or personal gain, with unfailing trust in God. The saints welcome this demanding invitation and set about following the crucified and risen Christ with humble docility. Their perfection, in the logic of a faith that is humanly incomprehensible at times, consists in no longer placing themselves at the center, but choosing to go against the flow and live according to the Gospel.”
Ultimately, this is the key to understand the events of Molokai and Haiti. And it will be the measure of our response as Christians.
In Haiti, much of what we have seen is the response of neighbors helping neighbors — of brotherly solidarity. There is no better way to rebuild a city, for, as Proverbs tells us, “A brother that is helped by his brother is like a strong city” (Prov 18:19).