Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Haiti’s Filipino nuncio counters critics on slow aid

Philippine Daily Inquirer/Feature/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

MANILA, Philippines—“Getting better every day.”

This was how Filipino Archbishop Bernardito Auza, Apostolic Nuncio to Haiti, described the progress of relief efforts in earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital city.

He had some words for his critics who said relief efforts had been slow, chaotic and hampered by rivalries. “They have forgotten the tragedies when four hurricanes hit Haiti in 2008. Conducting relief efforts on a grand scale in a country without the basic infrastructures and with significant security and social problems is hugely problematic.

“Haiti imports 80 percent of its basic needs—like food. When disaster struck, most of the aid had to be flown or trucked from other countries, mainly from the United States and Haiti’s neighbor, the Dominican Republic. But the tremendous good will and human solidarity of all have overcome these negative factors,” Auza reminded the critics.

“I have been constantly visiting relief centers, especially those managed by Catholic agencies and have attended many meetings related to aid distribution,” Auza told the Inquirer in an interview via e-mail.

“There has been evident progress in the relief efforts,” he added. “As a way of encouraging aid agencies, I half-jokingly suggest to relief agencies that their motto should be ‘getting better every day.’ It has been that way.”

Auza, 51, survived the deadly Jan. 13 earthquake unhurt but said that since the earthquake, Masses at the apostolic nunciature have been held in the backyard. “Masses are celebrated outside, in courtyards, halls and open fields.”

At least 150,000 people are believed to have been killed in the recent earthquake. Haiti, a poor Caribbean nation which has a population of more than 10 million, is predominantly Catholic.

Native of Bohol
Auza, a native of Bohol, has been the papal envoy (the Vatican’s ambassador) to Haiti since August 2008. He is one of four Filipinos now serving as apostolic nuncios in different parts of the world. He studied at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila and the University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome. He did his diplomatic formation at the Vatican Diplomatic School, Pontificia Accademia Ecclesiastica.

He worked in Madagascar, Mauritius, Bulgaria, Albania, the United Kingdom, the Vatican’s Section for Relations with States and at the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations in New York.

Soon after the deadly earthquake struck, the Filipino archbishop called his mother, Magdalena Auza, in Bohol to say that he was all right. In an earlier news report, Auza was quoted telling his relatives via e-mail: “I am barely standing and very exhausted.” He had been very busy with relief efforts, consoling the bereaved and blessing the dead.

Not as lucky
But the archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Joseph Serge Miot and the first vicar general, Msgr. Charles Benoit were not as fortunate.

“When the earthquake hit, the archbishop was in the balcony of his room on the second floor. He was in the habit of praying the rosary in the afternoon,” Auza recounted.

“The violence of the tremor and the wind rushing out of the collapsing three-story building threw Miot out of the balcony and onto the pavement below,” he said.

Miot was about to have a meeting with some church officials to finalize the assignments of seven new priests ordained by Auza last Dec. 28.

Auza narrated: “Monsignor Benoit was inside the residence. His body was found eight days later and was still intact, which seemed to indicate that he died only a short time before his body was recovered from deep under the rubble. I was told that he was holding a rosary on one hand and a host on the other.”

Many seminarians died
Auza said he knew some Filipinos who were killed. “I have been in close contact with the Philippine UN contingent here since I arrived in 2008. I know many in the UN Mission who died, in particular, all the high officers.”

The Port-au-Prince archbishop and the vicar were buried on Jan. 23 in front of the cathedral and Auza was busy meeting the delegations including bishops from the United States. Haiti’s President Rene Preval was among the dignitaries present.

“The Holy See will certainly restore the leadership of the archdiocese as soon as possible,” Auza assured, “but without rushing too much as a concrete gesture to honor local tradition and sensibilities.”

He gave a long list of church structures in Port-au-Prince that were destroyed including the major seminary where many seminarians died. “There could be around 20 seminarians and a professor still under the rubble,” he lamented. “And where are we going to house the 256 seminarians who have lost everything?”

The theological institute for religious formation also collapsed, burying 15 people, Auza said, and it would take some time to assess the damage and count the dead. “One thing is certain. The poor church in Haiti cannot even think of reconstruction without the generous help of all Catholics and people of good will throughout the world.”

Church aid
Auza, the bishops and officials of the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) have been meeting regularly to coordinate efforts. “The Holy See has appointed CRS to be the lead agency,” he said. “Haiti is the biggest CRS program in the whole of the Americas. The Church’s vast infrastructure on the ground and, above all, the parishes, are actively involved. Frictions are inevitable but we always try to smooth things out.”

Horrible as it was, the earthquake could provide a new start for the country, Auza reflected. “Surely we would not have needed such a devastating catastrophe to renew ourselves. But I believe the brightest silver lining in this huge disaster should be the renewal and commitment to do things better, be it in governance, in civil society and in the Church.

“For instance, the disaster has revealed to the world what we in Haiti live with every day, like nonexistent basic services and infrastructures. For everyone in Haiti, including those in Church leadership positions, this is a never-to-be missed occasion to show transparency and accountability, in order to restore the trust and confidence of the international community.”

Donors will lose confidence, Auza stressed, if corruption and a lack of transparency would emerge in the initial phases of reconstruction and, as a result, Haiti would never recover.

Auza had earlier called on Filipinos to help. Monetary donations may be sent to Istituto per le Opere di Religione (or the Vatican Bank), Vatican City, Account No. 20480001, under the name of the Apostolic Nuncio to Haiti Archbishop Bernardito Auza.

Bacolod donors
Bacolod Bishop Vicente Navarra also appealed for cash donations for the victims of the HaitiSocial Action Center at the Bishop’s House in Bacolod City or they can call 4344978. earthquake. Donations may be brought to the Caritas Bacolod Office.

“We are called to answer a Christian challenge posed by the latest devastation in Haiti. More than half-a-million people in Port-au-Prince are dead, dying, sick, hungry and homeless,” Navarra said on Monday in Bacolod City.

The bishop cited the need for everyone to pitch in to alleviate the sufferings of the people in Haiti. “A little amount will go a long way,” he added.

Navarra also called for prayers for those who died and for those still suffering in Haiti so they would be able “to rise from despair with renewed hope in God and humanity.” With Carla P. Gomez, Inquirer Visayas