Vatican delegation tours devastated regions of Gulf Coast

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

BILOXI, Miss. (CNS) -- Archbishop Paul Cordes, the Vatican's top humanitarian aid official, urged Biloxi Catholics Sept. 12 not to lose hope in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and assured them that with God's help they would "be able to overcome" the struggles they faced from the devastation.

The archbishop, who is president of the Pontifical Council "Cor Unum," which coordinates charity efforts, was sent to the Gulf Coast region by Pope Benedict XVI as part of a delegation visiting the hurricane-devastated areas of the United States.

He was accompanied by Washington Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick and Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, for a three-day visit that included visiting evacuees in Baton Rouge, La., going on a helicopter tour of New Orleans and driving through hard-hit areas in Biloxi.

Archbishop Cordes said his visit was "a sign from the pope that he'd like to be close to you and show his compassion."

Area bishops who joined the delegation included Baton Rouge Bishop Robert W. Muench, Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes and Auxiliary Bishop Roger P. Morin of New Orleans, and retired New Orleans Archbishop Philip M. Hannan. Bishops John H. Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., and Thomas J. Rodi of Biloxi met the delegation in Biloxi, and Archbishop Oscar H. Lipscomb of Mobile, Ala., met them in Baton Rouge.

The delegation met in Baton Rouge Sept. 10 and toured New Orleans by helicopter. The next day, after Mass at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Baton Rouge, they visited local shelters and a hospital to speak with evacuees from New Orleans. The group arrived in Biloxi Sept. 12 in a U.S. Marine helicopter.

After a brief gathering at the Biloxi Diocesan Pastoral Center, the delegation drove through devastated areas including a Biloxi neighborhood that was literally blown apart as if it had been hit by a bomb.

Houses were leveled to the ground or huge sections of them were moved to other yards or just broken in pieces. Some cars were upside down and an occasional boat was on its side. All tree leaves were singed brown and street edges were lined with piles of scraps that were remnants of the homes' insides.

Signs spray-painted on plywood boards in front of houses often listed the insurance policy numbers and some also had messages of hope and even humor, such as "We' re OK" or "For Sale -- Half Off Literally" and "Yard of the Month." A rooftop, laying flat on the ground, bore the message "God bless America."

The group stopped briefly at St. John Church in Biloxi where water levels rose at least 8 feet and wet mud still soaked the church's carpet. Hymnals, pews, Stations of the Cross and even the altar were all mud-covered.

The final stop in the tour was St. Michael Church in Biloxi, just blocks from the ocean and adjacent to the once-thriving casinos that were demolished in the storm. Bishop Rodi described the church, with its shell-shaped roof, as a place the diocese was "always proud of and will be proud of again."

To get into the circular-shaped church, delegation members had to first walk over wires, broken glass and scattered debris before climbing through the frame of a no-longer existing window.

Essentially nothing remained inside. The pews were completely gone and the bottom half of the long stained-glass windows were all broken. The Biloxi bishop was quick to point out that a crucifix suspended from the ceiling remained intact.

"Jesus is still with us," he told the other bishops and the reporters who were following them.

Inside the hollow church, Cardinal McCarrick described the scene as the "worst he ever saw" in his life. But he also told Catholic News Service that he was convinced the church would be rebuilt.

"You can't be a Christian unless you're optimistic; that's what it's all about," he said.

At the pastoral center before the delegation tour, Cardinal McCarrick told the assembled crowd of diocesan employees, priests, religious and lay people of the Biloxi Diocese that people would one day know about their area as the place that "came back with joy, courage and strength in God."

"Good is going to come out of this, even if you don't always see it," he added.

Archbishop Cordes likewise encouraged Biloxi Catholics, noting that the previous day in Baton Rouge he "saw people in difficult situations, but they were smiling."

"It was a sign of hope," he said, "that we can give our difficulties to the Lord and move on."

Copyright (c) 2005 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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