As the people of southern Texas continued to sift through the debris left by Hurricane Harvey to recover what material things they could, Houston’s religious leader did what he could to assist people’s spiritual needs.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the archbishop of Galveston-Houston and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, spoke to Register Senior Editor Matthew Bunson Aug. 31 about the scale of the damage caused by the massive storm system and the many pastoral and material challenges that lie ahead for the Houston area.

 

What is the situation at this point for all of you still in the flood zone?

The rain and flooding was — I hate to sound dramatic — devastating. This was a real disaster. We have a way of phoning and a way of calculating how some damage comes in, let’s say in terms of our parishes. We already have had 40 parishes that have called in some damage; some of it is minor in many places, but we have at least four parishes that I know of that are completely underwater. Everything was flooded. One of them was St. Ignatius in Spring, a parish of more than 5,000 families. A 1,750-seat church, and the whole thing is covered in water. So that would just give you an example, and we have that in a few other places.

We’re very worried about the church in Dickinson, because there’s a school there as well, and we want to get the school up and running or find a place to put the children, and this all has to be done in a few days. So we are challenged in terms of our infrastructure to a certain extent, though I think we can handle it. More important to us is the challenge that comes to people who are just really traumatized by losing their homes, losing everything they have. That has happened in so many thousands and thousands of cases that I think we have to be there to assist them in pastoral care, and that’s one of our concerns right now.

 

I can well imagine. What spiritual advice can you offer right now for those so catastrophically impacted by this hurricane?

The other day to our seminarians — I live at the seminary — I said: “Sometimes, you think as though you’re in the boat with Jesus, and the waves are all around, and you’re saying to Jesus, ‘Wake up!’” And I think this is what many are feeling — “Where is the Lord Jesus?” But he does rise to calm the waters. Part of how he calms is exactly through his Church and through the members of the Body of Christ, who are there to assist others.

What is absolutely edifying, in the best sense, is to watch Houstonians and others help other Houstonians, whether its volunteers, in terms of rescue, or bringing help, bringing clothing, bringing aid, and, of course, bringing comfort. That’s what we can do as a Church on all levels. And I think that’s how we handle people in the trauma: always the comforting words of Jesus.

By the way, here in Texas — and this is not to vaunt — it’s just to say: People readily speak their faith. If people ask what it’s like to be rescued [the reply is], “Thank you, Jesus. I love you, Lord.” Okay, that’s good. That’s a first step, and we can move with that and help people come to grips that the Lord does love them, and exactly through the people of the Body of Christ who bring them help.

 

You see a real Christian spirit at work in Houston right now. This is the sort of thing that happens so often with massive disasters — someone referenced the idea of a “Dunkirk” moment.

Yes, although I must admit people generally in Houston are pretty friendly and helpful. It’s a city that is — if we are to believe Dr. [Stephen] Klineberg at Rice University, who does studies of what’s happening in the United States — perhaps the most international city in the United States. Even our diocese — 1.6 million Catholics — we do 16 languages for Mass every Sunday, and that’s because those are the only languages for which we have a priest.

But we have far more than that.

Our people are used to being together. You go to one of any of our parishes on Sundays — these huge parishes, and I go to them — and it looks like the U.N. when you’re saying Mass there, in terms of the people in the congregation. I hear people say, “Well, you know, our community is so monolithic” — there’s nothing monolithic in Houston. It’s what makes the archdiocese so wonderful, the people so good. I always put my pulse on it and say, “It’s alive.”

 

I’ve heard it said that the archdiocese is in a way a snapshot of the 21st-century Church.

I would say, “Amen” to that. Absolutely. Because that’s what it is even now. People talk about things that they do to learn how to be more multicultural — we don’t say it to be proud, we just say:

Been there, done that. In other words, that’s exactly what we have had to do and are doing in the archdiocese.

 

How many different languages, what kinds of languages, are used?

It’s everything from a dialect from Indonesia — we have a group of Catholics from Indonesia, and we have a priest here who is a Divine Word Father who knows it, so he celebrates in that language — and we have, at least twice a month, at one of our parishes near downtown, not only Igbo, but Swahili.

They celebrate Mass in Swahili. We have Arabic. The three major languages are English, Spanish and Vietnamese. And I would say that 80% of the parishes have a Hispanic ministry, as well as an Anglo-English ministry.

 

And all of those communities right now have been directly impacted by this disaster.

Yes. I was talking to a relatively well-off person this morning whose house was really badly damaged, along with his friends and neighbors. And then you can go to another part of town, and it’s poor. Everybody got hit by this.

Nobody was spared. This is an equal-opportunity disaster for the people of Houston.

 

There has been such an outpouring of fraternal love and generosity in the wake of this disaster. What can the Church do to help Houstonians sustain that spirit over the long term, when so many people can’t even go back to their homes and are going to be dealing with this difficult condition for quite some time?

First, pray for and comfort them — don’t ever forget that.

Then, within the bounds of what happens in the community, civic community, and what we can do in our Catholic Charities and Church and St. Vincent de Paul Society, bring good material aid for really basic things, at first; then as we move along, help as they begin to grow back where they’re from, where they can or are able to do that. So I think comfort, counsel and physical aid are very important.

And never forget accompaniment, as the Holy Father would say, with that spiritual presence that is so needful right now for so many people.

 

Talking about Pope Francis, he sent a letter to express “his spiritual closeness and pastoral concern” to all of those affected, as he put it, “by the violent hurricane that swept through the states of Texas and Louisiana.” As a member of the College of Cardinals, to receive a note like that in such a difficult time, what did it mean to you personally?

It’s an indication always of Pope Francis. He loves the phrase “to accompany.” And he always spontaneously moves to accompany whenever he hears of a difficulty. And in this case, the tragedy goes across Houston through Victoria and all the way over to Beaumont. So, it’s a fine sense of comfort, also for me, as part of the college, and that the Pope is mindful of this neck of the woods. I think all of us would say, “The Pope knows we’re around.”

 

Yes, he does.

And that’s good! That’s really good.

 

And for you, what will the next few weeks bring? I can imagine you’re going to be very busy.

Some visiting to places hit; some I would call overarching — some administration for goods, you know, and this could be financially troublesome, so we have to deal with that. I want to be around, and to overuse the word, you have to be a “presence.” I called about, in the first two days, about 40 or 50 pastors. I’ve been trying to call others, just to call them and say, “How are you doing? What’s happening in your place?” And it ends up with a very kind conversation and all, but most of them would be happy to say, “Okay, at least he knows I’m here.” And I think that’s not unimportant — it’s the presence [that matters].

 

That accompaniment that Pope Francis talks about.

Oh, all the time. He’s really sensitive to that issue.

 

Finally, I know that the bishops’ conference, of which you are the president, has issued a series of statements, as well as the call for a collection. What can average Catholics do at this point to help everyone who has been so impacted by this?

Certainly again, in addition to prayer, they may love to contribute to Catholic Charities, for instance, or this national collection is an excellent way, because part of it goes for the humanitarian relief to Catholic Charities and other parts of the infrastructure, or to a diocese, whatever the bishop thinks is necessary. And to allow that kind of twofold thing is, to my mind, important because I never want to lose in Houston the humanitarian dimension of this. That’s crucial, maybe the most crucial. 

 

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Catholic Charities USA Harvey relief fund

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston Harvey relief fund

Knights of Columbus disaster relief fund

The U.S. bishops are organizing a national collection to aid the flood victims.