The day Mary, the Mother of Mercy, visited God's people of Haiti
'Jesus in Jerusalem', the International Catholic Charismatic Pilgrimage to the Holy Land, that was held in September 1997, the year of Jesus Christ, began with a healing service at the Sea of Galilee, which I was privileged to conduct. It made a great impact especially upon the hundreds of Catholic Palestinians who were invited to attend as guests. But one participant-pilgrim that was touched in a special way was Mr. Jean Lucien Ligonde, Chairman of the Haiti Charismatic Service Committee, who thereupon invited and urged me to come to Haiti to make a prayer of Deliverance for the country and the Church. A strange request - for till then I was being invited only to speak at conferences and to conduct retreats or missions, and not to just say a prayer - and so I did not take him seriously.
A year later I met him again at the International Leaders Convention that was held in October 1998 at Fiuggi near Rome to celebrate the year of the Holy Spirit. After the healing service that I had conducted in the evening of the third day, he begged me not to forget Haiti, which needed a strong prayer of deliverance because of its involvement with voodoo and the terror that had been unleashed under successive dictators. "Will I also give at least one talk and perhaps even conduct a program on the ministry of deliverance?" I asked him. "No", he replied, "We want you to come just to make a prayer of deliverance." Then I began to take him seriously and waited for more details.
In early March 1999, the year of the Father, I finally received a letter (posted in December) with the programme of their 5th National Charismatic Congress that was to be held from Friday the 9th to Sunday the 11th of April 1999. I was to lead a prayer for healing and deliverance from about 3.00 pm to 5.00 pm on Saturday the 10th. That's all! But, I wondered, did they realise that I would have to travel all the way from India to the Carribeans - and just to make a prayer? Would that poor country be able to pay even just the travel cost? Just a week before the Conference Jean phoned me to make sure I was coming. "Haiti needs you," he concluded curtly.
After 22 hours of four flights and three stopovers, I landed at Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, in the evening of Thursday the 8th of April, without a visa - afraid of being sent back, but prepared for it. However I was met at the airport by a quiet distinguished looking lady who got me through immigration and customs - within a minute - the shortest time I have ever spent at an airport. As she drove me through the city, I learnt that she was the wife of the former Prime Minister of Haiti and I would be staying at their place. She spoke about the past sad history and the present confusing situation of her country, though I already knew much about the recent turbulent events from Time magazine.
Located in the Caribbean Sea, Haiti occupies the western third of Hispaniola, the second largest island of the Antilles. It is one of the most densely populated nations in the world and its 7 million inhabitants are mainly descendants of African slaves brought by French colonists to grow sugar in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and the people live in an overpopulated environment that is mainly barren and impoverished, even though it is the second oldest republic in the Western Hemisphere, after the United States. Ten percent still speak French, but their culture retains its African roots, and ninety percent speak a Creole patois that is basically a mixture of French, Spanish, and English. Most Haitians are Catholics, nominally, but most of them also practice voodoo, a combination of African and Catholic beliefs that involve rituals of dance, music, magic, and cults of the dead.
The country suffered much under the notorious dictator Francois Duvalier, Papa Doc, as he was called, who was elected president in 1957, and enforced a reign of terror with his secret police, the Tontons Macoutes, until his death in April 1971. In 1971 the Haitians voted to approve Duvalier's 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude, or Baby Doc, as his successor, becoming the world's youngest president. His secret police continued to terrorize the population, and corruption was rampant among public officials. Anti-Duvalier riots broke out in several towns, and he and his family fled Haiti in February 1986.
For the next four years Haiti was ruled by its generals, but in December 1990 Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Salesian priest who had become an ardent Marxist, became Haiti's first democratically elected president. But he was deposed by a bloody military coup in September 1991 and thousands of Haitians fled their homeland by boat into Florida, USA, for political asylum. A United States led multinational force finally ousted the country's military leaders and restored Aristide to power in 1994 to complete his term of office in 1996. He appointed Smarck Michel, my host's husband, an advocate of free-market economic reforms, as Prime Minister - after President Bill Clinton made the reform of the Haitian economy a key condition for Aristide's return to power. Michel drafted a plan with the help of the U.S. to privatize many of the country's inefficient and badly run companies, but Aristide and many members of his left-leaning cabinet opposed such efforts and he resigned.
We arrived just in time for me to join the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince and the leaders of the Charismatic Renewal in a Mass of Intercession for their fifth National Charismatic Convention. After Communion I was asked to lead them in a prayer of protection for the forthcoming programme. Early the next morning I was taken to the top of the highest mountain overlooking the city and was asked to make a prayer of deliverance for the country and the people. Knowing the violence to which their ancestors, brought here as slaves, and now their descendents were subjected, and the hold that their traditional witchcraft still had over them, I felt that Jesus was weeping over Haiti as he once wept over Jerusalem.
The theme of the Conference was "Come back, Yahweh your Father loves you" (Is 43:32-4). I was greatly impressed by the presence of six Bishops, half the nation's hierarchy, and of the Papal Nuncio, a Frenchman, during all the days of the Congress. The massive crowd of 60,000, many of them youth and even children, was well disciplined and prayerful. The songs were inspiring and uplifting and all the local speakers spoke in Creole with great conviction and power.
On Saturday 10th afternoon, I led the healing service in English, translated into anointed Creole by Jimmy, a young married man with four daughters. During the prolonged praise and worship the Blessed Sacrament was being taken in a large imposing gold and jewel studded monstrance round the whole crowd and then placed on the altar. I really felt that Jesus was present there with love and power to heal. At the very start of the prayer I was led by the Spirit to invite the people to kneel down and touch the earth with their left hands and to reach out to heaven with their right hands, as with all my faith and love I led them into a powerful prayer of deliverance from Satan's power for the land and the people and into an anointed prayer of rededication of their land and their nation to Jesus present in the Blessed Sacrament under the protection and patronage of our Lady.
As I withdrew to the back of the stage during testimony time I noticed that something was happening to the vast crowd in front of me. They seemed to be all staring in the same direction towards the grove of trees on the left of the huge beautiful stage. The leaders whispered in my ears that Our Lady was appearing to the people. My first reaction was that of total unbelief, since I am not one 'for apparitions'. I did go to Lourdes after my ordination mainly out of deference to my mother who had a great devotion to our Lady of Lourdes. It was the one place in Europe that I visited a second time out of choice, since I felt there very strongly the presence of the Lord. The preceding year, 1998, when I was the main speaker at the annual Charismatic Conference at Fatima, Portugal, the Shrine there impressed me very much, and I knew that the overnight fall of communism was due to the intercession of Our Lady of Fatima. But ever since 1984 I always put off visiting Medjugorie, till the following year after Haiti, 2000, when I was invited to help conduct an international retreat for Priests at that Marian shrine. But now this was happening in my presence. The eyes of all were riveted on one particular tree in whose branches was seen a light or aura, in which not a handful of visionaries but many, perhaps the whole crowd, seemed to see our Lady, and for a considerable length of time.
I just sat with the Bishops behind the monstrance, looking down somewhat uncomfortably at the platform, which was being lit by regular flashes of light coming from that tree. Maybe, I thought, it was due to lightning - but there was no rain or storm; maybe it was caused by a short circuit - but the current had been switched off in that area as a precaution. I then forced myself to look at that tree and then I saw with my own eyes flashes of light bursting forth at regular intervals of a minute or so as if some one was taking flash photos. It was simply unexplainable. I resisted my curiosity to go towards the front of the stage and see what was happening. But I just told Our Lady, "Please, I don't want to see you here on earth, since my faith is both strong and rational enough not to need your apparition." I still don't know whether I said the right prayer - but I would not look at the front of that tree. The rest of the evening's programme earmarked for the Prayer of the Baptism of the Spirit had to be postponed for the morrow since the people were all enrapt for hours in the apparition.
One of the leaders came and asked me if this was authentic, since the 'so-called apparition' was apparently distracting people from the Blessed Sacrament. I said I didn't think so since Our Lady was not in the centre of the stage, where Jesus was, but rather at one side, not high up but somewhat low down, not in the front but a little behind, as at the marriage feast of Cana: "The mother of Jesus was there - and she said to Him, 'They don't have any more wine' - and she said to the servants, "Do whatever Jesus tells you to do" (Jn 2:1,3,5); as if she was still standing there with her new found son John at the foot of the cross, and as if she was still in the upper room with her other new children. "Our Lady knows her theology very well," I commented with a smile. At one point Jean, the NST chairman, came and told me that a woman had also seen Our Lady and her five year blind son whom she was carrying had all of a sudden pointed out to Our Lady in the light of that tree, saying, "Mama, that's Our Lady". And then the mother knew that her child had recovered his eyesight through the intercession of Our Lady. They were brought to me on the stage, the mother with her son in her arms - and with his arms raised aloft in praise.
The next day, Sunday 11th April, the concluding day of the Congress, happened to be the feast of the Divine Mercy - and Our Lady, the Mother of Mercy, the Patroness of the Pontifical College where I studied for my priesthood in Rome, seemed to have appeared once again to her people, on the Feast of the Divine Mercy of her Son. This feast means much for me, for it was at the National Polish Shrine dedicated to Our Lord of Divine Mercy in Henley-on-Thames, in England, having the largest picture of the Divine Mercy I have ever seen, from ceiling to floor, that I have been conducting the annual Inner Healing retreats. I was touched when the Papal Nuncio came up to me and said, "Thank you for what you have done for our country and people." The country's Bishops wanted me to come to their dioceses to conduct similar services, but I had to leave the following day, Monday the 12th, back for India.
As I passed by the venue of the Congress on my way to the airport, a thought came to my mind. "Let me go to the grounds and see if there was such a tree which was being lit up so spectacularly like the burning bush of Moses." I could not spot it at first till my hostess, Mrs. Michel, the former Prime Minister's wife, pointed it out to me. But to my great surprise the tree seemed to have become white. This was no miracle, I was told, but almost all the bark had been ripped off by the people - and I was given a small piece of the remaining bark as a souvenir. Of course this event made headlines in the country, since one and all felt that it was an answer to the prayer the people of Haiti made through their popular 'telephone song', in which they telephone Mary to put in a word to her Son Jesus about their current problem.
When I returned to the American mainland on my way back to India, I made it a point to visit the National Shrine of the country, the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, at Washington DC, with its hundred or so altars and pictures of Our Lady, including that of Our Lady of Vailankanni put recently. I knelt down at each altar to read the inspiring historical note about that particular apparition and to pray the corresponding beautiful prayer that was both so scriptural and still so relevant to our lives today. Then I knew that Mary had indeed appeared to her children in Haiti too. "Jesus' mother stood beside his cross. When Jesus saw his mother and his favourite disciple with her, he said to his mother, 'This man is now your son!' Then he said to the disciple, 'This woman is now your mother!' From then on, that disciple took her into his own home" (Jn 19:25-27). It was in that same spirit that, as I learnt later on my return to Bombay on Pentecost Sunday for the Pentecostal Rally there, that the students of the school on whose grounds the Congress was held, approached the Brothers to have a shrine built on those same grounds, their home, which had been honoured by a visit from Mama Mary, a visit which provoked in them the same feelings of unworthiness and wonder as it did in Elizabeth, "Why should the mother of my Lord come to me?" (Lk 1:43).