Cardinal Robert Sarah has just returned from a mission trip to Japan, where he visited the places most affected by the 8.9 magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami that devastated entire areas of the country and damaged a nuclear power plant.
"Caritas Internationalis has done a great job coordinating all these resources," he said in the following interview. "This effort has enabled Caritas Japan in recent weeks to provide food, blankets and basic necessities to more than 10,000 people affected."
Also participating in the pastoral visit were: the apostolic nuncio to Japan, Archbishop Bottari de Castello; the president of the episcopal conference of Japan, Archbishop Ikenaga; the bishops of the affected dioceses, as well as representatives of Caritas Japan and the undersecretary of Cor Unum, Msgr. Segundo Tejado.
All were present during a moving floral tribute in Shichigahama, one of the areas most damaged by the tsunami.
We interviewed the Cardinal to hear his impressions, and asked him to make a first assessment of the impact of the aid efforts thus far.
Q: What did you encounter in Japan?
Cardinal Sarah: Unprecedented material devastation alongside a great spirit of recovery, solidarity, and the search for a response to this catastrophe, which Christians know to be found in the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Q: What was the reason for your visit?
Cardinal Sarah: To bring to those most affected by the disaster -- whether Christian or not -- the nearness of the prayer and encouragement of the Pope, and to make a personal assessment as to what else can be done to alleviate emergency situations.
Q: What are the projects of solidarity that have been developed over the recent weeks?
Cardinal Sarah: The earthquake and resulting tsunami have caused death, pain and destruction but have also resulted in another tsunami of solidarity among the faithful, thanks to the diocesan Caritas worldwide. Caritas Internationalis has done a great job coordinating all these resources. This effort has enabled Caritas Japan in recent weeks to provide food, blankets and basic necessities to more than 10,000 people affected.
Q: What impressed you most during this visit?
Cardinal Sarah: It's hard to say. The whole trip has been a shocking experience. In Sendai, for example, from the car window we saw a gigantic plain (which used to be a crop field), clustered with many different objects displaced by the water from several kilometers away: smashed motorcycles, broken furniture, pieces of columns of a building, a refrigerator, a boat in the middle of a rice paddy, ruined houses, etc.
Q: Will the process of recovery take time?
Cardinal Sarah: Yes, and it's not going to be simple. In the region near the Fukujima nuclear power plant, some 800 fishermen have lost their jobs because the water took away their boats and, although they have received state aid to buy new boats, radiation will prevent them from fishing for an entire year. This is not an easy situation for a region that lives off fishing. The same applies to farmers in this area: they cannot cultivate the land during the next 12 months. Paul, a Catholic fisherman in Saitama, took us to see the site where his house was and where he used to moor his boat: now there is nothing.
Q: How have the people been reacting?
Cardinal Sarah: With impressive courage and dignity, despite the pain and suffering. We visited a church badly damaged in the Diocese of Saitama, the roof and sacred images destroyed by the earthquake. We had a very moving encounter with the faithful, who now attend Mass outdoors with extraordinary faith. In Sendai, after the celebration of the Eucharist, we had another touching meeting with people who had lost all their personal belongings, and we gave them all a rosary from the Pope.
Q: Does the presence and work of Caritas make sense in a society where Christians are less than one percent?
Cardinal Sarah: Undoubtedly. In every woman who has lost her loved ones to that tidal wave, in every man who has seen his home destroyed, in every sick and suffering person, we continue to see Christ. Christ himself encourages us to see Him in every hungry person, in every person who suffers. Not only in some people, but in everyone, because all are children of God, even those who are not aware of it.
Q: Do you not think this attitude can conceal a form of proselytism?
Cardinal Sarah: The Pope said in his encyclical "Deus Caritas Est" that "Love is free; it is not practiced as a way of achieving other ends. But this does not mean that charitable activity must somehow leave God and Christ aside. For it is always concerned with the whole man. Often the deepest cause of suffering is the very absence of God" (N° 31).
Therefore, the exercise of charity is not intended for the immediate conversion of non-Christians, but, at the same time, Christians should not hide their faith, the deep values that nourish their love. Every person is free to practice or not a particular religion and give reasons for this, and this also applies to Christians.
Q: In some contexts, especially the most secularized or hostile to Christianity, wouldn't it make dialogue easier if there existed some sort of separation between the exercise of charity and the Christian faith?
Cardinal Sarah: Logically, when an elderly Buddhist man receives comfort and care in a hospital, or a Muslim woman is offered medical assistance during a war, they will necessarily ask themselves: "Why is this person here?"
Doing good with hope diffuses the values that underlie these generous actions. At the same time, the volunteer will be surprised by the human integrity and virtue of those people, and that will help him or her appreciate the different religious beliefs. Helping others is a deeply human good that transcends religious diversity and fosters dialogue.
Q: Will this be a topic of debate in the assembly of Caritas Internationalis, which will take place in a few days in Rome?
Cardinal Sarah: I think so. Caritas Internationalis does an admirable job of coordinating aid throughout the world and it is only natural for it to question its identity in international contexts that are so culturally diverse.
Q: Will the earthquake in Japan be forgotten like the one in Haiti?
Cardinal Sarah: We are doing our best to not forget. Behind every disaster, every earthquake, there are hundreds of thousands of personal tragedies. I promised to the communities we visited that they will not be abandoned. Now we carry them in our hearts
Q: What is the role of volunteers in this type of disaster?
Cardinal Sarah: It is wonderful to see the heroic work of so many volunteers, their selfless dedication to carry the burden of pain or to meet the needs of others; it is a sign of a Christian's hope in the future. To encourage their formation, "Cor Unum" is organizing a meeting in Rome on Nov. 11, taking advantage of the European Year of Volunteers in 2011. We want Haiti and Japan to be the first places to benefit from this initiative.
Q: Wouldn't it be better have specialized personnel, or to leave more space to State agencies?
Cardinal Sarah: These aspects are not incompatible, but complementary. Without doubt, professionalism in the practice of charity helps address practical problems more effectively and organize in a proper way the distribution of aid. But we cannot forget that these problems also have personal and transcendent dimensions that require a spiritual "medicine": the regenerative proposal of values made flesh in real people who give of their time and energy freely to others.
Q: For example?
Cardinal Sarah: Caritas Japan manages four shelters in the Sendai area, thanks to the generosity of other Caritas in the world. In the shelter at Ishinomaki parish, there now live some 400 people, who each morning return to what remains of their homes to repair them, if possible, or to slowly collect their belongings. They return to the shelter to eat, sleep and have a minimum of family life. If it were not for the hundreds of young volunteers assisting the professional workers, it would be materially and spiritually impossible to care for all of these people. The volunteers stem from all over Japan, Christians and non Christians, many of them are university students, who take turns every 10 days.