Eight months after a ferocious hurricane devastated huge swaths of New Orleans and the Mississippi coast, the notion that such damage can be part of a purification or "chastisement" continues to be met with fierce resistance.
Statements by clerics and even politicians to the effect that "Katrina" was an act of God have been ridiculed, labeled "insensitive," or dismissed as "archaic" by the secular media and even Christian and Catholic outlets of liberal persuasion.
The very mention of the word "judgment" by the mayor (along with unfortunate remarks about the racial nature of New Orleans) drew the most recent opprobrium. Many religious leaders have quickly followed the secular lead in dismissing notions that what happened last August had deep spiritual implications.
But if my experience in visiting the city last month is an indication, there is a substantial "underground" of priests who believe precisely this: that the storm, which caused one of the nation's greatest disasters, was allowed by God to serve as a sign to the world and to reorient the area. At one dinner party, fully four of five priests present indicated their concurrence, as did a fifth the following morning from the pulpit at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, -- where images of Mary, including an iconic painting of her as Perpetual Help, in recent years have "wept" inexplicably. Our Lady of Perpetual help is located in Kenner on Short St. (off of Williams blvd. across from the airport.)
One of the priests, Father Robert Guste, who is now retired in Kenner, expressed this view at a meeting that included the entire New Orleans City Council and representatives of the governor's office, FEMA, the Corps of Engineers, and the media in September. He said his mention of a spiritual connection drew groans, tapping fingers, and shuffling feet among some of those in the audience -- and then misquotes in the Times Picayune.
Father Guste, who had warned politicians before "Katrina" that "complicity in public immortality and disrespect for human life" would "continue to invite God's judgment and punishment," then wrote a letter to the mayor after the storm, in which he expressed a viewpoint similar to what he would verbalize at the meeting (and now to Spirit Daily).
"New Orleans is my city and that of my family going back many generations," the priest said. "I'm 78. I grew up with Mardi Gras, street hockey, red beans and rice every Monday and beignets at the French market, morning call after Mass on Sunday.
"[But] I've seen things come into the life and culture of New Orleans that were never there, in the same public and perceptive way, as they are today. This is true of Mardi Gras, the Decadence Festival, gay bars, many Bourbon Street and French Quarters activities, porn joints, devil worship, and casino-connected addictions and prostitution.
"New Orleans is jokingly but (by many) proudly called 'sin city,'" added the priest. "Does it not invite Divine judgment today as Jerusalem, Nineveh, and Sodom and Gomorrah of old?"
Indeed, for years, exorcists and those involved in spiritual-warfare ministries have cited New Orleans as one of the nation's "hotspots" for demonic activity, along with New York and San Francisco. The Big Easy's strip clubs, pagan-style parades, transvestite bars, voodoo parlors, psychic shops, tarot readings (on the sidewalk in front of the cathedral), drug use, pollution, and crime rate have all been cited as magnets for darkness.
These evils stand in stark contrast to a population of dedicated New Orleans Catholics and other denominations whose devotion is not exceeded anywhere in the nation.
Famous shrines and some of the nation's most beautiful churches stand as fortresses against the spirit of debauchery.
But Christianity is under attack (blasphemies reign during the Mardi Gras, with horribly vulgar spoofs of Jesus and Mary) -- and even lesser forms of sin cause disorder in the realms of both the natural and the supernatural, noted another attendee at the dinner.
As some have posited, it may not be God causing disasters so much as allowing them to happen when the darkness has grown too strong -- lifting His Hand of protection when His children need to learn the hard way.
Despite public criticism of any mention of "signs" (a resistance that was also seen after September 11), there is a growing notion that something unusual is afoot in the world, from hurricanes to the Asian tsunami.
A former judge and state senator told me that he believed the hurricane was a message from God -- and that "we better get the message." A city councilman and a state representative from Mississippi also have gone on the record with similar viewpoints -- and similarly have been attacked by the media.
Former Archbishop Philip Hannan, nicknamed the "pope of New Orleans," has issued the strongest statements to date, exhorting Catholics to "teach our children" that what happened during the storm "was a Divine chastisement."
While the current bishop has maintained a distance from similarly strong language, the manner in which New Orleans was decimated has given former skeptics second thoughts and has led to call for a re-sanctification of the "City of Saints."
In the days after the hurricane, noted Father Guste, Mass readings from the Bible bore striking references to purification.
If it was a purification, many ask, why was the heart of much debauchery -- the French Quarter -- spared?
"What came to me is that God wants us to take care of correcting that situation," replies Father Guste. "He wants us to decide to do that."
Is it that? Is it that in His mercy the Lord did not want to take away the very heart of the city?
Or is it because such disasters may be orchestrated at times by evil itself -- which would naturally spare the center of darkness?
Whatever the case, it has become apparent to a growing if often silent number that something strange is happening, and that it is the role of the Church to practice prophecy.
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem!" Father Guste quoted to the local officials (from Matthew 23:37-38). "How often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but thou wouldst not! Behold your house is left to you desolate."
"Someone asked me in an interview if I think New Orleans will ever be the same," said the Father Guste. "I answered 'I hope not!' I hope and pray it will be a better city built on the foundation of Christ or even just natural commonsense law -- with respect for public morality and human life. Only then can we expect God's blessing."
Editor’s note: Michael Brown is the editor of Spirit Daily, a website that compiles daily spiritual news from around the world. The web address is www.spiritdaily.com.