While the universal shepherd Pope Francis made a significant and much-needed trip to tend to his flock on the island of Madagascar this week, some of his other sheep were undergoing significant challenges brought about by Hurricane Dorian in the isles of our hemisphere. While the numbers pale to the million who slept in fields and streets to catch a glimpse of the pope in Madagascar — one of the poorest countries in the world where the vast majority of the population lives on less than $1.90 per day — the tropical storm skirting our shores decimated the Caribbean and left nearly 70,000 people homeless on our southeastern doorstep.
Many Americans do not realize that the oldest diocese in the territories of the present-day United States is that of San Juan, Puerto Rico, which was established in 1511. There is a rich and vibrant Catholic history in the Caribbean, whose roots combine horrors like the slave trade and the violence of pirating marauders with inspiring figures of saintliness like Ezequiel Moreno y Diaz, Peter Claver, Felix Varela and Pierre Toussaint.
The current ecclesial leaders of the region have an influential role in the wider church through their participation in gatherings like the Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano (CELAM) and the Antilles Episcopal Conference, which are gaining wider recognition in recent years for their unique approaches to implementing the vision of the Second Vatican Council. My fellow alumnus from Camden Catholic High School, Bishop George Murry, S.J. served for a period as the local ordinary of the Virgin Islands, including Saint Thomas, Saint Croix, and Saint John. And my current colleague Professor Nathaniel Samuel is originally from the area and recently helped organize an international meeting in Saint Lucia for the scholars of the Black Catholic Theological Symposium.
Like so many others, the disaster undoubtedly wrenches the hearts of those with deeply personal ties.
But the entire church, and perhaps especially those of us in the most powerful and wealthy nation on earth only a few short miles away, must consistently challenge ourselves to greater solidarity with those with whom we are integrated as the wider Body of Christ, and with all men and women of good will, who are suffering so mightily. As of this writing, hundreds are still missing and presumed dead, and the images of destruction so mammoth, that it is unlikely the region fully recovers economically or spiritually anytime in the foreseeable future.
As the Aparecida Document puts it, “In the teachings of Vatican II the church recognizes itself as ‘sacrament of unity of the whole human race,’ conscious of Christ’s paschal victory, but living in a world that is still under the power of sin, with its consequences of contradictions, dominations and death. The ambiguity of the current globalization process is perceived from this faith-inspired interpretation of history. God’s Church in Latin America and the Caribbean is a sacrament of communion for its peoples. It is the dwelling place of his peoples; it is the house of God’s poor. It calls together and gathers all in its mystery of communion, with no discrimination or exclusion by reason of sex, race, social condition or national identity. The more the church reflects, lives and communicates this gift of astonishing unity which finds its source, model and destiny in trinitarian communion, the more meaningful and incisive is its action as an agent of reconciliation and communion in the life of our peoples.”
Both the English words hurricane (“god of wind and storm”) and Caribbean (“human race”) trace their roots to the indigenous Taino language, spoken by the islanders of the area. Let us pray that He that we recognize as the omnipotent God of both nature and all peoples binds up the wounds of his cherished creation in the region. And let us collaborate in that noble work to whatever extent is possible.
Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.