This past week, the pastors of the parishes most affected by Hurricane Sandy came together. FEMA and other government agencies, as well as diocesan offices, devoted much of the afternoon to a detailed briefing. Yet, it seemed to me that the most important aspect of coming together was the lunch we enjoyed and sharing in our common priestly fraternity.
As I looked around the table, I could not help but notice that these priests were under similar, if not more intense pressures, as the people they serve. Some continue to live in rectories with no electricity or heat, while others were forced to seek shelter elsewhere. Some of those impacted are elderly, others young. Some are healthy, others seriously ill. The shock at the extent of devastation cannot be underestimated.
I am proud of these men, some of whom braved the storm to be with their people and others who have been with their people night and day in these weeks during the recovery. They are icons of Christ who poured Himself out for all of us.
An image that is seared into my mind is visiting a young mother and father who were burying their two small children lost in the hurricane. Gazing upon their two small bodies in one coffin at their wake stirred up emotions hard to describe. Celebrating the funeral Mass for one of our beloved school teachers who died in the midst of the storm, and seeking to make sense of such suffering for her family and for us all, required a great deal of prayer and reflection.
For many of us who are New Yorkers, we cannot help but think back to Sept. 11 and the profound scar it left upon our city. I cannot help but think this is especially the case for the people of Belle Harbor. In a special way, I am grateful to Msgr. John Brown, pastor of St. Francis de Sales, for his leadership. His parish has become the epicenter for major recovery efforts in the Rockaways. That is no small challenge, especially when so many of his own parishioners, very understandably, are desperate to have life get back to some sense of normalcy.
The parallels with the lasting impact of Hurricane Katrina upon New Orleans and the Gulf region were inevitable. One thing is clear to me, the cost of human life can never be calculated. We were extraordinarily fortunate that there were not many more deaths.
Recently, we in the Diocese of Brooklyn took up a collection to alleviate the suffering of those who were impacted in our diocese. Thus far, we have collected just about $600,000. Perhaps a measure of just how this has affected our Diocese, we in Brooklyn alone were able to raise over $1.4 million for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Still, for well over 300,000 families whose homes were damaged and over 265,000 businesses that were impacted, the storm was nothing less then catastrophic. We as a Church need to help our neighbors here in Brooklyn and Queens rebuild their lives. We must help bridge the gap in resources, to the extent we are able, for those many middle-class families who are already stretched so thin. These are the people who, week after week, have supported our parishes and schools. The diocese will give a block grant of $25,000 to our affected parishes for distribution to parishioners as an initial step of trying to get immediate resources to those families most in need.
Catholic Charities is trying to put together a $1 million fund to give direct assistance to those in need. Our diocese, as well as other dioceses throughout the country, will assist with this fund. But much more is needed.
At the same time, we cannot forget the profound impact of this hurricane upon the undocumented, many of whom are ineligible for FEMA funding. Father Fulgencio Gutierrez, pastor of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Far Rockaway, passionately made the case for the undocumented to our elected officials present at the meeting we had.
We must do more for the people who are suffering throughout our diocese. We must not leave anyone behind or alone. I am calling upon our pastors to preach about the real human cost of this hurricane on so many of our families. As in years past, the second collection at Christmas is for Catholic Charities. It is my hope is that we will be able to raise considerable resources to assist our own in need. All monies donated over the base collection from the past year ($362,900) will be distributed to those with hardships related to Hurricane Sandy here in Brooklyn and Queens.
So many of our families are not simply in need of $250 or $500, they are in need of thousands of dollars to help rebuild their lives. We must do better. Every little bit helps. Let us each do our part to make sure no one in Brooklyn and Queens is left behind.
As we put out into the deep during this Advent season, let us remember that charity has its roots in the Latin word caritas, meaning love. It seems reasonable that a measure of our love is our charity toward those in need. As is often said, charity begins at home. Following Sept. 11, 2001, many of us wore sweatshirts and hats with the phrase “Never Forget.” Hopefully, the people throughout our diocese who were scarred 11 years ago and are suffering so greatly today will not be forgotten.