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New cardinal brings happiness and visibility to Haiti

  • Cardinal Chibly Langlois (Jim McManus)
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In February, Bishop Chibly Langlois of Les Cayes, Haiti, became the 215-year-old island nation's first Roman Catholic cardinal. It was a move that surprised many because Langlois was not an archbishop, had not spent much time outside Haiti, and, at 55, is relatively young.

Langlois is well-known in Haiti, though, where his low-key, open and friendly demeanor seemingly absorb, and reflect, the Haitian experience. Haiti, with a population of 9.5 million, is 85 percent Catholic, and has endured a long history of political upheaval, poverty and intermittent natural disasters.

Even in the poorest countries, like Haiti, there are seeds of hope and progress. A solar-powered clean water company opens in a rural town. A colonial-era dirt road gets paved with new blacktop. A new city marketplace opens next to a port being rebuilt for shipping and tourists. From the north comes news that an old shipwreck has been confirmed as La Santa Maria, one of the three ships first brought to the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492.

Les Cayes is a remote southern coastal town of 70,000, a plodding four-hour bus trip from the capital of Port-au-Prince. The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption sits across the scrubby town square and the cardinal's office, where just a few staff members help operate the sprawling diocese. Outside, the streets and sidewalks are broken and potholed, and flood when it rains. Inside the cathedral, images of a blond, white Jesus and European saints adorn the altar and walls.

Haiti and Les Cayes provide fertile ground for Pope Francis' determination to focus the attention of the church, and the world, on addressing the problems of the poor.

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NCR: What does it mean for Haiti to have the pope recognize the church by naming its first cardinal?
Langlois: I think ... this brings a lot of happiness to Haiti in general, the fact that the pope recognizes the church by naming a cardinal. At the same time, the church feels appreciated by Pope Francis, a pope who pays a lot of attention to those in need. Among all the countries in Latin America, in this hemisphere, Haiti is a country in need. ...

We also think that Pope Francis has given Haiti an opportunity to be more visible to the world, because there is a tendency to forget Haiti, especially after the [2010] earthquake. ... We can also say that this is an opportunity for the church to assume its responsibility even more in this society, which entails organizing the church in every aspect so it can fulfill its mission the way it must in this country, its responsibility to accompany the people in their faith so that we can have a society enlightened by the Gospel, a society which does all that is right to help this country advance.

As a cardinal of the church, what do you hope to do to build connections between Haiti and the church beyond Haiti?
Naturally, the church is connected to one another. But as cardinal, of course I have been involved in this type of work as conference president, the bishop's conference. We have always tried to build bridges between Haiti's churches and other churches, especially after the earthquake. We have been doing this work within the scope of getting closer to each other -- the churches especially -- so that other churches can help Haiti's churches come out of its setbacks, especially after the earthquake.

What does Haiti have to offer to the church?
It's certain that we have the experience of our faith in this country, the way we practice it. We can offer that as an experience to the church. We can offer the hope we carry. The Haitian people, in spite of its suffering, in spite of its troubles, in spite of its misery, all of our Christians have always continued to believe that tomorrow will be better. We think that this is a foundation.

A strong, unshakable faith is very common in our country, among the Haitian people. In spite of all that happened in this country, you will not find a group of people taking their own lives. You will not find a group of people who place themselves in situations where they would risk losing their lives, because they love life. ...

The church can also offer the universal church the services of many who are called upon to do God's work. In Haiti, we have many missionaries who travel to other countries to lead missions. We have priests who travel to other countries where there are not enough priests; some priests and nuns have gone to other countries, so we have that to offer. We have missionaries who go to other countries; this helps them believe in Jesus Christ, so that they too can be saved. We have all these types of wealth that the universal church is expecting from us. We too can take part in the construction of the church on this earth.

In 1983, Pope John Paul II visited Haiti and said, "Things must change here." What do you think has changed and what challenges need to be addressed?
Well, there are many things that changed in this country. The church itself has tried to be more visible. It has become more transparent in the eyes of the people. Many parishes have been built, many dioceses have been built, and many people have been called upon to do God's work. ... At the time the pope uttered these words, it was a time when people, at a social level, were fighting for democracy in this country. We were fighting for freedom of the press, and to also be free in this society. We have achieved these benchmarks after Pope John Paul II made this statement. We now see that people can speak without fear. People can express their views in this country. We can also say that democracy has begun to sprout in this country.

But we still have a lot to change. ... We need to change the economic condition of this country. We also need political stability in this country. We need these things. We also need our followers to believe even more, to have a deeper faith and a more solid trust in God.

Pope Francis has spoken frequently about economic justice and the obligations of richer nations to help poorer nations. What does that message mean in the context of Haiti's efforts to build a fair and sustainable economy?
In regards to economic justice, we believe it is something that must be of interest to everyone on this earth. But in Haiti in particular, we know this is a country with so much need. The people have lots of needs. This is also a country where access to education is not available to everyone. This is also a country where those in the majority do not have access to the country's wealth. We believe this ... [is] the way this country was built since the beginning. Since its independence.

It is important that we insist on having economic justice in Haiti. This insistence must be guided through a dialogue with everyone, so that can be conscious of this reality, and to find a way to make some propositions and decide on helping the majority of the people find their share in this country's economy. ...

In reality, the wealth that one possesses, even when one is very intelligent or has the capacity to earn a lot, this wealth does not belong to one alone. One should not use it in a selfish manner. God has placed this wealth in your care so that you can use it in a way to benefit others. This is why justice must lead to love, love for charity, not the kind you hand over to people, but the kind of charity where you want others to share in the wealth that the earth has provided you because the earth's wealth belong to us all.

What are some of the opportunities in Haiti for the church today?
Even now, the Catholic church's membership in Haiti is the highest compared to all other religions. So the people represent our greatest opportunity. In fact, the church exists to also serve the people and at the same time encourage them to help each other. ...

Other opportunities we have: the fact that we are many dioceses, many bishops, many priests, many church members, people who are engaged in the services of the church. So this is a great opportunity, if we really pull together, we display this togetherness required by the church, live together while caring for one another as required by the church, we'll be able to accomplish great things.

Other opportunities we can identify inside the church is the fact that we have God's people, a very receptive crowd ... ready to listen to the message from God, to accept the word of God. This requires that the church is organized in a way to train people, to provide them with the kind of support they need inside the church. ...

The other opportunity is the fact that we have a lot of people inside the church in Haiti who are trained and who can help the church. ... The fact that our church is connected with other churches means that we can also include members of the Haitian diaspora who are Catholic who live abroad. So, this is a great opportunity that we can explore in order to help the church grow inside Haiti and outside of Haiti. ...

The other opportunity is to capitalize on the wealth we have inside the church and inside this country so that it bears great fruits. This would be an important step in assuring that we complete our mission, so we have a great opportunity that a lot of countries do not have. One of the opportunities that is beneficial to the church is that we can run our mission inside this country. There are no obstacles in our way, which means we have the freedom to practice our faith. We can teach religion in our schools, so it is a great opportunity that many others countries do not have.

What are plans for rebuilding the cathedral in Port-au-Prince that was destroyed by the earthquake?
I know there was a design contest organized to determine which of the designs to choose in order to build the cathedral, but we think that those in charge of the archdiocese of Port-au-Prince are still thinking about choosing a design that fits with the characteristics of the country itself. ...

Since this work will take some time, we understand their decision to prioritize a short-term solution by working on the old cathedral that is located next to the big cathedral. They are looking for funds to complete it. Then I think they will be able to concentrate on the big cathedral. This project will require a long time to conduct studies, to raise funds in order to build it; then it will take a long time to actually build it.

[Jim McManus is a former editor of NCR. He traveled to Haiti in May.]

This story appeared in the July 4-17, 2014 print issue under the headline: Cardinal outlines Haiti's challenges, gifts .

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