Archbishop Aymond Comforts His Flock in the Wake of Hurricane Ida

“Being faith-filled,” says the New Orleans archbishop, “is even more important than being resilient!”

Archbishop Gregory Aymond
Archbishop Gregory Aymond (photo: Courtesy of the Clarion Herald)

A sense of empathy is much stronger (and much more helpful) than a sense of sympathy, as Audrey Hepburn says in her classic film Funny Face. I’ve recently come to see why this is so true.

In mid-August, I moved my family to New Orleans for a new job. We bought a house a way outside the city. The location isn’t too far from work, and gives our homeschooled kids plenty of space to play. The stress of buying a house was overcome with the joy of seeing our kids grow up in a safe, spiritual and scenic setting. 

And then 13 days later, our lives changed. Hurricane Ida strengthened off the coast of Louisiana and plunged into the Gulf Coast as the fifth-strongest in recorded history. After watching from my relatives’ house in Alabama, I returned a couple days after the storm had passed to assess the damage.

Nearing the area, my heart sank. Everything had been ripped apart. The thickest of oaks, with roots meters in diameter, were plucked from the ground as if by some giant gardener. I had a flashback.

Sixteen years earlier I was in Biloxi, Mississippi, for Hurricane Katrina when I was with the Air Force. For a sleepless night I listened to the wind rip our building apart and watched the waves of the storm surge push down the street. A day and a half later we were marched back to our dorms. What I saw that day, and for the next several weeks on a cleanup crew, was disturbing. It looked like a bomb went off. Nothing else describes the level of destruction caused by wind and floodwaters.

To move to the Gulf Coast for the second time in my life, only to be hit by a major storm within days, gave me a dreamlike sense of guilt. “Do these things follow me? Or am I just not cut out to live in this part of the world?”

Pulling up to my street, I could not pass height of the water with my Honda Odyssey. Luckily, Louisianan neighbors are very helpful. One drove up and got me as far as he was willing to drive. “Bro, I’m at my runners and I can’t feel the road anymore. You gotta walk from here.”

Reaching my home and anxiously walking through the door, my worst fears were realized. We were flooded. Frogs, water bugs and spider webs already found their home. The impact of the noxious flood silt and mud ensured hours and days of hard work ahead.

As my family returned, we’d begin the demolition of the beautiful home that we had just purchased. Only able to live on the second floor, my family of seven has been relegated to two bedrooms, a room for homeschool, and a bathroom. A corner of the banister is a makeshift kitchen and closets double as pantries and other storage.

Two months in and our hands hurt, our bodies ache daily from the daily labor (after regular work hours), and the good Lord knows we’ve had a meltdown or two — but I think we’re done with those. We accepted the situation before it started, but the surprises with costs and what to fix were moments filled with drama. “How are we going to pay for this?” has been a recuring theme.

So when we heard that Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans would visit our area to concelebrate Mass, we were greatly consoled. In the parking lot, under tents with tarps tied for walls, Archbishop Aymond gave a tender homily.

“Jesus reminds (James and John) that they are called to be humble — not to sit at his right or his left, but to share in his life,” said Archbishop Aymond, noting that to do this, Jesus tells James and John that they must be willing to drink from “the same cup of suffering” he soon would be experiencing at Calvary.

He continued:

My sisters and brothers, all of you, in one way or another, have experienced that cross with Ida. It has been a terrible cross for you. You are resilient, and you will come back. … But faith is what brings you back. Resilience is a human virtue, but faith is the spiritual virtue that brings you back.

“You have been faith-filled,” he says.

There’s been a bright side for sure. One of these faith-filled moments was when a friend, a lifelong local, consoled me one day as he walked me though his house, which had also flooded. Showing me all the work he also had going on with his house, identical in scope to mine, he took me to a room where the water line was still visible. “Anything above this line, and the entire structure could have been condemned.”

He pointed to a painting. I was almost filled with tears:

Christ Walks on Water
Christ Walks on Water

After the past several weeks, the archbishop’s homily reminded me that when we do suffer, God says, “I am with you,” and it’s not a superficial or empty saying. Jesus suffered for us, and also with us.

I had heard this wisdom during a life of relative comfort, and I admit it is hard in these moments to be comforted by such a simple message. My situation feels unjust. “We just moved here!” I am tempted think to myself. But there is more than wisdom in this teaching — there is hope. Not just hope for recovery, but hope for heaven, where suffering of all kinds will end. There is hope in suffering because the ultimate suffering of Christ, the worst injustice the world ever witnessed, brought the highest hope the world has always wanted. 

A friend who is also a mentor reached out to me and said, “Shaun, don’t just think of this as a time of suffering. It is, but it’s also a time of learning.” And I’ve learned so much — not just the ins and outs of flood insurance and how to rebuild a house, but the invaluable lesson that empathy should call us to action. It’s more than feeling sorry — it’s visiting the suffering, giving our time a resources when we are moved, and to identify all of these with Christ on the cross — he is with me, suffering beside me as I stretch my arms in agony.

“People say you are resilient — and you are — but by your presence here today you’re also saying that you’re faith-filled,” Archbishop Aymond said. “And being faith-filled is even more important than being resilient!”

Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond

Archbishop Aymond and Coronavirus (April 18)

This week’s show features Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans, who on March 23 became the first bishop to announce that he tested positive for the new coronavirus. He spoke to Jeanette De Melo by phone on April 9 just hours before celebrating Holy Thursday Mass. But first Matthew Bunson and Jeanette catch up on the latest news — at least one U.S. diocese is resuming public Masses — and the pro-life community reaches out to serve women in crisis pregnancies.