Tuesday, 22 March 2011

What I Saw in Haiti: Chapter 6

O non Papa a, ak Pitit la, ak Lespri Sen An! Amèn!
Camping out behind the church of St. Gabriel afforded us the blessing and opporunity for daily Mass, of which I took advantage. But it was Sunday Mass especially that was the main event in Beau-Sejour. It also happened to even the playing field a little. I may have succumbed to the heat on the trek up the mountain, but Nassrin buckled during the two-hour liturgy.
Shortly before my own venture to Haiti, a Protestant friend of mine, with whom I attended Bible College, had travelled down there on a mission trip of his own. Based on the status updates he left on Facebook and Twitter, the primary purpose of his trip was to evangelise the Haitians through giving concerts. Leaving aside the absurdity of having a concert tour in an earthquake ravaged country, what really offended me was one comment of his, praying that God would give the Haitians a "hunger". He meant by this, of course, a greater desire to know, love, and serve God. But to suggest that the people of Haiti don't have this hunger is, it seems to me, to have been utterly blind to the religious devotion that abounded everywhere one looked--as I remarked in the third chapter of this series. Nowhere was this ardent love for the Lord more evident than in the Haitians' celebration of Sunday Mass.

One of the things that certain so-called "traditionalists" in the Catholic Church lament about the results of the Second Vatican Council is an increasing lack of reverence at Mass. People don't dress up as nicely, they talk too much, the music is blasé, etc. etc. ad infinitum. After having been in Haiti, I would contend that the lack of reverence experienced in the celebration of various Novus Ordo masses throughout North America has next to nothing to do with the liturgy itself. Fr. Bill and I discussed this at one point, and he commented that he remembered the Pre-Vatican II Masses, and quite frankly, people weren't much more "reverent" when they were praying in Latin, than when they are praying in English. Traditionalists, he opined, are longing for something that never really existed in the first place. Reverence is primarily a matter of the heart. External actions can reflect, and, to a certain extent, promote an internal attitude of reverence, but they will never replace it.

The village of Beau-Sejour is spread out for miles through the mountains of Haiti between Port-au-Prince and Jacmel. It has no roads except for rough trails through the hills, which are typically muddy and difficult to traverse. The regular rainfall every afternoon during rainy season ensures that the trails are never dry for long. Worse still, the earth is very ruddy and clothes are easily stained. Yet the residents of Beau-Sejour rise especially early every Sunday morning, in order to walk sometimes as much as three hours in order to come to Church. They clean themselves up, and get dressed in their nicest clothes. They take their Sunday shoes and tie the laces together, and string them across the back of their necks, and then set out on this three hour hike through the mountains in the pre-dawn hours, barefoot, so that when they get to the Church, they can clean their feet and put on their nice, clean shoes before entering God's House. When you walk three hours, barefoot, through the mud, to go to Church, you can talk to me about "reverence" and "hunger for God".

Once at the church, the parishioners gather outside and greet each other warmly, as family--as Haitians. They enter the shabby building and begin the opening hymn as Père Ronal and the altar servers process in (on this occasion joined by Fr. Bill and Mark, from our team, who served at the altar as an act of solidarity). I began to describe the church into which they processed in my last chapter, but it's only once you enter in that you begin to realise what a "church" is. The already meagre structure of St. Gabriel's had been destroyed in the earthquake. All that remained were some steel girders within, poorly made and badly damaged pews, and the cracked concrete floor. The altar was a long folding-table covered in an altar linen. The pulpit was damaged, and on the front, someone had lashed a hubcab with a cross-like motif in lieu of a Cross. It summed up the fact that the building was furnished with whatever they had at hand. They had enough to make it a "church" without any of the extra gildings to which we become so accustomed. They didn't even have proper walls--the roof, supported in the middle by the steel posts, was supported around the edge by bamboo posts. These had large tarps tied to them to make "walls". And yet, the building was still a sacred space. Jesus' people gathered to worship Him and to offer His Sacrifice. All the little extras weren't even missed.

One of the "perks" of Catholicism is its universality. No matter where you go to Mass (hopefully), the liturgy is the same. We read the same Scripture as our fellow-parishioners back home at St. Margaret Mary. We ate of the same Eucharist. We prayed the same prayers--only we prayed them in Creole. Not knowing the language made paying attention somewhat more difficult, but due to the structure of the liturgy, we could pray along in English (or try to attempt to at least imitate the Creole sounds), and enter in very nearly as fully as if Mass had been in English! I'd further asked if we could be seated somewhere where we could see the faces of the parishioners, as well, in order that I could try to discern what they were saying by reading their lips, and thus attempt, at least feebly, to pray with them in their own tongue. We thus were seated to the right of the Sanctuary in pews that faced the Sanctuary and were perpendicular to the congregation. It afforded us a wonderful view of both the altar and the congregation, and helped to immerse us more fully into the Haitian Mass.

On the other hand, another "perk" of Catholicism is its embracing of culture and cultures. In the liturgy, which is the same everywhere, distinct cultural flavours help to incarnate the Message of the Gospel into the lives of the people. Music is one of the key means by which this happens, and the music of Mass in St. Gabriel was far removed from the usual fare at St. Margaret Mary--Dancing (reverently, of course), hand-waving, clapping to the beat of the djambes--these people were in to the Mass! They knew what it was to express their worship and love for God with their entire beings, body and soul! Nowhere was this more apparent than the offertory, when a basket was set in the aisle before the altar, and these poor people danced up the aisle to give what little money they could! It gave "cheerful giving" a whole new meaning, and I was reminded of Jesus' words about the poor widow who gave more than the richest of men, because she gave from her lack, while they give from their abundance. I remarked to Nassrin that I wished the Catholics back home had this much passion behind their worship. The blessings of this Twinning Project are indeed a two-way street, if we are humble enough to recognise that the Haitians have so much to offer us, as well as us giving to them from our abundance.

Haiti is home to an indigenous vodou religion. Itself a synthesis of Catholic spirituality and African spirituality, it has a strong and growing following among many Haitians. Part of the problem with the vodou religion is precisely that it is so syncretous that many people believe that they can be a devout Christian and a practitioner of vodou. It's a similar phenomenon to many here in North America who think that the practice of Yoga or other New Age practices are fully compatible to the Christian faith.

Of the more sinister practices of vodou are various spells and sacrifices that actually involve the desecration of the Eucharist. For this reason, reception of the Eucharist in the hand, as is commonly practiced here in Canada, is forbidden in Haiti. The traditional practice of receiving the Host directly on the tongue is maintained, in order to more effectively prevent the theft of the Host by a secret vodou practitioner, who might otherwise palm the Eucharist and spirit it away to perform his unholy rites. This face-to-face encounter with the more diabolical side of religion, and of Haiti, gave us missioners some pause. For me, it showcased an interesting reality, emphasising the Truth of the Catholic Church's teachings on the Eucharist. If vodou priests see the presence of Jesus in the sacramental Host as a source of power in their rituals, it offers something of a hostile witness to the fact that Jesus is indeed truly present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity--and that He is present with power. After all, no vodouists bother trying to steal the bread and wine or crackers and grape juice from Protestant churches; they know that all they are is bread and wine. In the Catholic Eucharist there is power--power that yes, those who live in the darkness try to pervert to their own ends--but power that should make any sincere, devout Catholic marvel in wonder at the great gift that Jesus makes to us of His very Self. It should give those who do not believe in this great gift pause, to wonder why it is that even the devils believe, and tremble.

One of the most unusual (and perhaps uncomfortable--especially for Nassrin, as I mentioned in the introduction) things about Mass in Haiti vs. Mass in Canada, is that their celebration lasts! Sunday Mass was two hours long! So perhaps Nassrin is to be forgiven for succumbing to the heat of over 100 bodies in essentially a big tent in the tropical sun! But it wasn't long. For me (who, after my initial heat shock on the trek up, wasn't bothered by the temperature for the rest of our time there), it was like one of those get-togethers that you just don't want to end. Indeed, every Mass, I think, should be like that. These people came together for a purpose--to worship God. They sacrificed much, to walk three hours barefoot to get there, and to make the same trek home later. I tell you, they weren't leaving until they felt that that journey was worth it! And one hour just isn't long enough to contain their love and devotion to Jesus and His Presence in the Eucharist!

When we have that kind of hunger for Jesus, that's when the Gospel will come alive to the world around us.
I've been writing this reflection since the 10th of March. Distractions aside, it simply has taken a while to really process the singular experience of Mass. I'm sure I'll never adequately plumb its depths. And look, Dan! Not one comment about how you were falling asleep! Oh...Wait...

It was immediately following Mass that we were forced way, way outside of our comfort zones! But that story is for the next chapter...


Joey said...

What an inspiring post. This makes me want to walk to church. Imagine how much more effective my prayer would be.

Even the Novus Ordo, said faithfully and reverently and joyfully, without all the accoutrements of a postmodern concept of "active participation", is an offering pleasing to God.

Does the Creole official translation of the Mass more closely folow the European French form? In other words, has the Creole Mass been subjected to something akin to the ICEL, which bastardized the English N.O.?


Gregory said...

Joey, I'm afraid I don't have enough of a grasp of Creole to be able to adequately answer your question. Sorry.

russ rentler said...

I totally concur with your assessment of the Haitian culture particularly as it applies to Catholic Christians. I spent 10 years as an evangelical going to Haiti in protestant churches and now going to a Catholic parish in PAP.
It is beautiful to see how Christ really intended one faith, so despite cultural barriers of language, we still worship the same! I had the similar experience as you, I was able to follow along with the liturgy despite not knowing creole.
I also had an experience where a protestant wrote to me about a friend going down there after the quake because they wanted to share the gospel! My answer to my friend was that the haitians can share the gospel with us, because they live it!
Thanks for the post!

Gregory said...

Thanks for stopping by, Russ! It reminds me how far behind I am in writing this series! Hopefully I'll get a Part 8 up today, after I post one more work of art :)

God bless!