As the death toll from the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunamis soared, Pope John Paul II praised the international community for rapidly mobilizing aid efforts and said the church’s charitable agencies were doing the same. In a statement on Dec. 30, Caritas Internationalis said Caritas India was helping with the vital task of recovery and burial of bodiesa necessary first step to prevent the spread of water-borne diseases and epidemics.
The statement said Caritas member organizations had begun to send medical professionals and fund supplies to support local staffs and hospitals that were providing immediate care. More aid will follow once Caritas assessment teams complete their evaluations of the overall situations in the hardest-hit areas of India and Sri Lanka, it said.
In Thailand, the Rev. Phibul Visitnonthachai, director of the Thai bishops’ Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees, said his office would coordinate a massive assistance campaign that would focus on emergency relief for poor fishing people, as opposed to tourist resorts. Almost the entire length of Thailand’s southwestern coastline was engulfed by waves. That area is home to thousands of fishermen, the Rev. Piergiacomo Urbani, P.I.M.E. a missionary, told Asianews.
In Baltimore, Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ international relief and development agency, committed $25 million for emergency relief and long-term rehabilitation programs in Asia. A C.R.S. statement said the agency’s response was expected to increase. The agency’s Web site crashed temporarily on Dec. 29 because response to an appeal for donations was so great.
Right now the immediate needs for clean water, medical care, shelter and food are critical, explained Ken Hackett, C.R.S. president and C.E.O.. We can only expect that the aftermath and recovery will take place over a long period of time. It’s especially important that we don’t overlook the impact of trauma among the survivors, who are grieving under life-threatening circumstances.
According to C.R.S., the initial funds will help the following relief efforts:
In India: Working with Caritas to provide life-saving food, medicine and shelter in the worst affected districts of Tamil Nadu/Pondicherry, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, and the Andaman and Nicobar islands; supporting 10 diocesan partners to organize and manage 93 relief camps sheltering over 125,000 people along the Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh coastlines; providing displaced persons with cooked food three times a day, and with clothing, clean water and medical assistance as required; providing resources to partner groups for distributing dry food rations, medicine, oral rehydration solutions and water purification tablets in remote areas.
In Sri Lanka: Providing cooked food and dry rations, non-food items and mobile medical assistance; purchasing and distributing soap, water cans, kitchen sets and bed sheets/sarongs for displaced persons; providing technical support for local partners.
In Indonesia: Collaborating with other agencies for the delivery to 755 families in Aceh of survival kits, which included kitchen utensils, hygiene items, blankets, sleeping mats, water storage cans and plastic sheeting.
In Thailand: Assisting the needs of poor fishing communities affected by the tidal waves in six southern provinces.Religious Personnel Provide Consolation
On Thailand’s southwestern coast, tsunami survivors, traumatized and shocked by the devastation and loss of their loved ones, poured out their grief to religious personnel. Survivors told of losing family members. Although I had wounds all over my body, I did not feel the pain because the loss of my wife hurt so much, said Chaisin Ngodpho-oad, a construction worker in Phi Phi.
On Dec. 26, while Chaisin and other workers were digging to make a swimming pool, they heard a loud noise that they thought was a plane crash. His wife was in the workers’ huts, about 150 feet from the sea. Chaisin said when he looked up he saw parts of bungalows being tossed in the air by 30-foot waves. He rushed to reach his wife, but the waves threw him farther inland to the hills.
Pornchai Techapitakhtam, a Stigmatine priest who is pastor of St. Agnes Church in Krabi, told UCA News on Jan. 3 that Chaisin’s story is one of many personal tragedies church workers have heard since Dec. 26. He said that at the provincial hospital he spoke with survivors who had lost children, spouses or other relatives. Church workers have helped Buddhists take the bodies of family members to temples for cremation, Father Pornchai said.
Father Pornchai also has served as a translator for foreign tourists. He said he celebrated Mass for foreign Catholics who lost loved ones and was to conduct a memorial service for a Dutch family who lost their 3-year-old child.
Petra Darunee Likhittam, a Presentation sister, said her team has been offering assistance to survivors in makeshift centers in Krabi. Two people told her they dragged a woman to safety as they were trying to scramble up a hill on Phi Phi. The woman had lost hold of her baby while being pushed by a crowd of people running for their lives. The baby was trampled to death, and the mother had no heart to continue until the two women dragged her to safety, Sister Darunee said.
Immaculate Heart Sister Rosa Supha Suphathongamphai said church workers were overwhelmed by the personal tragedies, and that their help is small in light of the enormity of the personal losses they encounter each day. The nun and her team have visited Phangnga, Thailand’s hardest-hit province, where more than 3,000 bodies were found. Muslim and Buddhist survivors told her that the visits showed that Catholic personnel cared for them and their future.
Many Tsunami victims, young and old, are in a state of shock and depression, traumatized by the suddenness of the disaster and the loss of loved ones and belongings, reports a Sri Lankan priest. We receive reports of suicide attempts and children staring into space, with a vacant look of despair on their faces. There is an imperative need for counseling and repairing the damaged lives of these people through appropriate therapies.Cathedral Grounds Become Refugee Camp
The cathedral grounds in India’s Port Blair Diocese have become a camp for some 1,300 people displaced by the tsunami disaster, said the local bishop. Bishop Aleixo das Neves Dias, S.F.X., of Port Blair said the diocese has been directing the distribution of food, clothing and medicine at the cathedral in Port Blair, receiving little help from the government, which is operating several other camps for the displaced in the beleaguered region.
The bishop said the church had tried to supply a sense of normalcy for the displaced, erecting a giant television screen for the people to watch. Today it is a blessing to see the gloom and despair turned into some relief, with children playing around with smiles on their faces in the compound of the cathedral, he said.
Every morning before breakfast, priests at the cathedral conduct an interfaith prayer service, with Catholics, Hindus, Muslims and members of the Bahai Faith reciting prayers in turn. A similar service is held before dinner, the bishop said.
He said many islanders swam to safety, climbed trees or ran into the forest to save their lives. Their stories make me weep, he said. Although official estimates of the death toll on the islands ranged from 5,000 to 8,000, Bishop Dias said he believes the death toll will be 15,000 to 20,000. He said the Indian government initially set up four relief camps, and four were added after more survivors were rescued. Each camp holds about 1,000 to 1,400 displaced people.
About 400,000 people live on the islands, which lie about 600 miles off India’s eastern coast. More than 40 percent of the inhabitants are Christians; about half of these are Catholics. Bishop Dias estimated that about 180 chapels and churches in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands territory were destroyed by the tsunamis. Forty years of dedicated work...here has to be rebuilt, the bishop said.Fishermen Want Boats, Not Aid, After Tsunami
We don’t want any relief materials except boats and nets to get back to the sea, said Aravindan, a 36-year-old fisherman who lost two sisters in the tsunami catastrophe of Dec. 26. Aravindan is among hundreds of tsunami survivors, most of whom depend on fishing for their livelihood, in the Cuddalore area of southern India’s Tamil Nadu state. George Kannanthanam, a Claretian priest who was among the first to reach the predominantly Hindu villages in the coastal area with relief, said the relief phase was ending and people would like to get back to work. A catamaran and three sets of nets, the basic requirement for a team to go out fishing, cost about $3,500. No fisherman can afford that kind of money, especially at this time, said Ramaswamy, head of the fishermen’s community in Southakoppa. The district administration pays about $350 for each damaged boat. Ramaswamy’s village reportedly lost 42 boats.Archbishop Bars Legionaries
In a letter made public by an Internet posting in December, Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis informed pastors that the Legionaries of Christ are not to be active in any way in the archdiocese. He also instructed them that the Legionaries’ lay associate movement, Regnum Christi, is to be kept completely separate from all activities of the parishes and the archdiocese. The lay organization should not be allowed to use parish or archdiocesan property for any meeting or program, he said.
The St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese is not the first to bar the Legionaries, a religious order of priests whose approach to ministry and methods of vocations recruitment and seminary formation have been a source of controversy. The Diocese of Columbus, Ohio, has had a similar policy toward the Legionaries and Regnum Christi since October 2002.
With his circular letter of Nov. 23, Archbishop Flynn enclosed a copy of a letter he wrote the previous month to the Rev. Anthony Bannon, national director of the Legionaries of Christ. In that letter he expressed concern that in meetings and correspondence with Father Bannon over several years, his efforts to learn more about the Legionaries and Regnum Christi and their ministry in St. Paul-Minneapolis brought responses that tended to be vague and ambiguous, characterized by generalizations about intent and policy.
While the Legionaries’ written materials speak of cooperation with local churches, he said, in his archdiocese practice has not seemed to match theory in that regard.... Our pastors continue to sense that a parallel church’ is being encouraged, one that separates persons from the local parish and archdiocese and creates competing structures. As a result, he wrote to Father Bannon, I have decided that Legionary of Christ priests are not to be active in any way in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
The October letter said lay Catholics have a canonical right to join associations of the faithful, such as Regnum Christi, [but] not all such associations are officially approved or supported in every diocese. Since the organization operates outside normal church structures such as parishes and schools, there is no opportunity for me to exercise appropriate vigilance in their regard, the archbishop wrote.
He said the archdiocese therefore does not endorse or support Regnum Christi itself or activities sponsored by that movement. To prevent any confusion on the matter, he added, Regnum Christi activities must be completely separate from any parish and archdiocesan activities and cannot take place on any parish or archdiocesan property.
Jay Dunlap, a spokesman for the Legionaries, told Catholic News Service on Dec. 21, We wish to continue communicating with the archbishop, to listen to him and continue to dialogue.
The archbishop’s letters were posted on the Internet at: www.regainnetwork.org. Also posted are copies of a letter from Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, La., warning parents about the Legionaries and a church bulletin, published in 2002, from St. Joseph Cathedral in Columbus, Ohio, announcing a diocesan policy of barring the Legionaries from the diocese and barring Regnum Christi from the use of diocesan or parish facilities for any of their activities.
The Rev. John Carville, vicar general of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, was cited as a diocesan consultant in the letter from Catholic High School last June to its students’ parents. He told CNS that when Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes of New Orleans was bishop of Baton Rouge in the 1990’s he had concerns about the Legionaries that were similar to those expressed by Archbishop Flynn. He said that after discussions with Father Bannon, then-Bishop Hughes established a protocol that if the Legionaries wanted to operate in the diocese they had to keep us abreast of everything they did.
Frankly, they didn’t adhere to it, he added. Bishop Robert W. Muench, who became bishop in 2002, recently established a stiffer protocol requiring written quarterly reports from the Legionaries on all Legionaries and Regnum Christi activities in the diocese, he said, and the Legionaries have complied.
Asked to describe the concerns of the two Baton Rouge bishops, Father Carville said, The problems we have found with the Legionaries specifically are that they seem to hide their identity, they somehow convey to their followers that what is being taught in parishes in the diocese is inadequate Catholicism, and they have an adverse effect on the morale of local clergy, who are then badgered with questions suggesting that they aren’t doing their job right.
The Baton Rouge priest also raised the parallel church issue, saying the members of Regnum Christi, under supervision of the Legionaries, have organized various ministries, such as youth ministry and small faith communities, that parallel the ministries of the local parishes.
The Legionaries of Christ was founded in 1941 by a Mexican priest, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado. Its U.S. headquarters are in Orange, Conn. It has about 600 priests and 2,500 seminarians worldwide, including 75 priests in the United States and a seminary and novitiate in Connecticut.To Help Tsunami Victims
Checks, earmarked for tsunami relief or tidal wave disaster, can be sent to:
Catholic Relief Services, 209 W. Fayette St., Baltimore, MD 21201-3443; (877) 435-7277; www.catholicrelief.org.
Catholic Near East Welfare Association, 1011 First Ave., New York, NY 10022-4195; (800) 442-6392; www.cnewa.org.
Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, 5633 Sherbrooke St. East, Montreal, Quebec H1N 1A3; (888) 664-3387; www.devp.org.
Pontifical Mission Societies, 366 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10001.
The Catholic Medical Mission Board, (212) 242-7757; www.cmmb.org.
The National Council, Society of St. Vincent de Paul, 58 Progress Parkway, St. Louis, MO 63043-3706; www.svdpusa.org.
Jesuit Refugee Service, 1616 P Street NW, Suite 300 Washington, DC 20036-1405 www.jesref.org.