ROME — On the five-year anniversary of a mammoth earthquake that left 100,000 to 300,000 people dead in Haiti, laying waste to what was already one of the poorest nations in the world, Pope Francis met participants in a Vatican conference on rebuilding on Saturday and told them much remains to be done.
This far removed from a tragedy, efforts to raise money needed for recovery often run into donor fatigue, as memories dim and other causes arise. Two leading American Catholics, however, said Saturday they see a “Francis effect” in promoting passion for the poor, and thus the willingness of more affluent believers to keep giving.
“I think Pope Francis has especially resonated with people on this issue, in a way that his predecessors haven’t,” said Carl Anderson, the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, referring in general to concern for the poor.
Anderson attended the day-long Vatican conference on Haiti to promote a soccer team for amputees sponsored by the Knights of Columbus in Haiti. Three members of the squad, known as “Team Zaryen,” met Francis Saturday and gave him a team jersey with the number 5 on it, representing the five-year anniversary.
The players also scrimmaged with a Roman team of amputees on Friday on a soccer field owned by the Knights in the city.
Anderson said Francis has had a discernible impact on his organization’s capacity to raise money to support such causes.
“We’ve always gotten a pretty good response, but I’ve been surprised in the last two years how it’s been shooting up,” he said. “Francis is really touching people’s consciences.”
Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami agreed.
“Pope Francis puts these things on the map for people, and brings a generous response out of them,” Wenski said.
Wenski also attended the Vatican conference on Haiti. He’s long had strong ties to the country, pointing out that Miami is actually closer to Haiti as the crow flies than it is to Atlanta.
He said Americans ought to take a special interest in Haiti, noting that the two nations have a deep historical bond — including the fact that the 1803 Louisiana Purchase was a direct result of the Haitian Revolution, which created a cash flow problem for Napoleon and induced him to sell.
Anderson said Americans can also learn something from the way Haitians draw on their faith to cope with hardship.
“I met a woman who’s maybe 22, who lost her legs and every member of her family in the earthquake,” he said. “Somebody asked her what the first thing she would do was when she got out of the hospital, and she said she was going to a church to thank God.”
“You have people who are tremendously disadvantaged, but they have tremendous faith,” he said. “That’s a gift and a witness that those of us who are affluent, tremendously affluent by their standards, need to see.”
Routinely ranked as the most impoverished nation in the Western hemisphere even before the disaster, Haiti was devastated by the earthquake that struck on Jan. 12, 2010. Some 3 million people were affected, in a nation where the total population is just 9 million.
An estimated 250,000 residences and 30,000 commercial buildings were damaged or destroyed, as well as thousands of public structures, including the country’s parliament building and presidential palace.
Haiti is a pervasively Catholic nation, representing about 80 percent of the population, so the Church also took a staggering blow. Scores of churches, schools, missions, offices, and other properties were destroyed, including the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in Port-au-Prince, and Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot of Port-au-Prince was among those killed.
The country’s main seminary was also destroyed, and for four years, seminarians were forced to live in tents until the Archdiocese of Miami agreed to convert a $1 million structure it originally built in Haiti as a clinic.
Immediately after the disaster, a special collection in US parishes raised roughly $100 million for Haitian relief. Wenski said about $70 million went into humanitarian projects, while a little over $30 million was set aside for rebuilding the Church.
“Looking back now, I can say that maybe the proportions should have been reversed,” Wenski said on Saturday. “Humanitarian aid comes from lots of different sources, but rebuilding the Church only comes from us.”
Of the roughly $33 million for Church projects, Wenski said, about $25 million is already spoken for and the rest will be earmarked by the end of the year, but it’s nowhere close to meeting the need. Among other things, he estimated it will require $6 to $8 million to rebuild the cathedral and that money has not yet been raised.
“We’ve just begun to scratch the surface of recovery,” he said.
“I think that’s why Pope Francis wanted to have this conference, to make sure people don’t forget,” Wenski said.
Anderson said that whether the cause is Haiti or any other effort to help the poor, Pope Francis is a compelling calling card.
“Living with the poor is not an abstraction to him,” he said. “He understands, as Mother Teresa did when she talked about the dignity and courage of the poor. People respond to that.”