Tsunami Relief, Continued; Mexico's Challenge

Caritas Discusses Its Ongoing Aid to Asian Victims

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By Catherine Smibert

ROME, SEPT. 29, 2005 (Zenit.org).- During their September meeting at the Vatican, Caritas Internationalis representatives from the areas hardest hit by last December’s tsunami in Asia recognized the importance of their long-term efforts.

Many participants in the session told me that the difference aid from secular agencies and from Catholic groups lay in the latter’s ongoing efforts after the first wave of disaster relief.

«We do not say that we are reconstructing shelters or houses, but that we’re rebuilding homes,» Father Varghese Mattamana, assistant executive director of Caritas India, told me.

Bishop Joseph Prathan Sridarunsil of the Surat Thani Diocese, in Thailand, said, «There is now an atmosphere of trust and community we have built that brings a sense of comfort regardless of the material elements available to the people.»

Caritas has raised $450 million for its follow-up Capacity Program. Apart from this money being distributed between the nations for material assistance, Caritas has placed an emphasis on its investment in implementing projects of psychological assistance to deal with post-traumatic stress in tsunami-struck areas.

«It’s an integral understanding between houses, livelihood, psycho-social care, education, organization of the people and long-term sustainability,» explained Father Mattamana.

«These are usually fishing people in long coastal areas who originally called the sea their mother,» he said. «Now, it has turned on them and ripped their loved ones from them. It is hard to go back to work there even if you give them boats to do so.

«For instance, once we had completed our three-month immediate and six-month temporary relief operations — meeting the food, clothing, shelter and health needs of more than 50,000 families — we went on to construct 12,000 houses at the same time as [we were] contracting professional psychologists specialized in trauma.»

These therapists, Father Mattamana said, have been training the priests, sisters, schoolteachers and counselors in Indian dioceses to produce specific programs for individual families.

«However, in acute cases — like the woman who sits at her children’s graves every hour of the day — we employ psychiatrists,» he said.

The presence and constancy of Caritas and their partners is having profound affects on the rehabilitation of most of the nations hit by the tsunami.

Bishop Sridarunsil said that the Church’s peaceful, yet practical, approach has also opened doors of dialogue in these multifaith countries as never before. «When we send out our mobile-support teams, it’s not a matter of quantity — so much money or so many houses — but it’s more important that we’re a sign of God’s love to the people,» he said.

Both the Thai bishop and the Indian priest report on the amount of fear once held by other religious faiths that Catholic-aid partners might be «out to convert them.» Now, many recognize the Catholic groups’ focus on concrete responses to their needs, irrespective of creed or caste.

«Some denominations have indeed tried to make problems by way of proselytism,» explained Bishop Sridarunsil. «But we simply try to create dialogue through our actions.»

* * *

Revolutionary Appeal

The bishops of Mexico are being challenged to give a stronger voice to the Church among their peoples.

Some of them are making their «ad limina» visits to Rome, usually an event that places every five years. For some, the years have rolled into 11 since their last visit, so there is a lot of ground to cover.

This is according to the secretary of the Mexican episcopal conference, Bishop Carlos Aguiar Retes of Texcoco.

The 55-year-old prelate said that Benedict XVI’s appeals to his conference to apply more actively the faith in society, have been welcomed by the bishops and are even being seen as «revolutionary.»

Bishop Aguiar Retes confirmed the dislocation between Catholic worship and Catholic thought in his country mentioned by the Pope. «There is a loss of complete religious liberty,» the Mexican prelate told me. «It seems that public opinion is ever more against our voices, particularly when we pronounce anything of a sociopolitical nature.»

He added: «They say to us, ‘You can say your Masses, but you must not speak about what is happening in our lives.’ According to them, we have to limit our words to strictly ‘religious’ topics and to stay inside the Church — we respond by presenting the impossibility of this is due to the nature of the faith being integral.»

For many Mexican Catholics, their baptism is the only true encounter they have with their faith, Bishop Aguiar Retes said. «Ten percent of Catholic actually go to Mass on Sundays. Of this 10%, only 1% are involved in the works for the Church and usually on a voluntary basis,» he lamented.

Yet these figures appear to clash with other statistics which show that out of all institutions in Mexico, the Church holds the trust of the people. Nevertheless, the Church is not totally free to express its thoughts or teachings, especially in the media.

«But this is yet further reason for us to respond actively to the call of Pope Benedict that we enliven the faith of our people by offering a more personalized religious attention, consolidating the structure of communion and proposing a purified popular religiosity,» insisted Bishop Aguiar Retes.

Giving examples of how the Church in Mexico is already taking action on this front, the bishop said: «We have worked very hard for many years after the Second Vatican Council on a catechesis that is a lot deeper and more solid with the Catholics — in the private schools, in the parishes and especially in conjunction with the assistance of new movements born out of the Council. These are real internal forces in the life of the Mexican Church.»

He discussed the battle against the «Masonry and other anti-clerical sects» that have oppressed the Church in Mexico.

«The upcoming elections of 2006 will be a good test» of whether the Church can have an impact, the prelate said. «We are now intent on working with the powers of the media, the government and the people to give the Church and her social teachings a voice.»

* * *

Youth and the Eucharist

Young Romans have invited their peers the world over to join them for the second annual conference focused on the role of the Eucharist in self-discovery.

More than 200 young delegates from adoration groups will arrive in the Eternal City on Oct. 4 for the beginning of the weeklong convention called «Venite Adoremus» (Come, Let Us Adore Him).

Members of the organizing committee note that the event coincides with the close of the Year of the Eucharist as well as the Synod of Bishops.

«We have actually had requests from some of the participating bishops to offer up an evening of perpetual adoration for the occasion,» organizer Filippo Vari told me.

Vari is just one of a large Rome-based team under the guidance of Monsignor Mauro Parmeggiani, general secretary of the Vicariate of Rome and regional director of pastoral service for youth.

Apart from a series of opportunities to spend time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, this group has lined up a series of lectures.

Speakers will include Dominican Father Augustine Di Noia, undersecretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the postulator of Pope John Paul II’s cause for beatification. Speakers will examine topics under the main theme of «The Eucharist and Man’s Identity.»

«We will also be getting the entire city involved,» said Marthe-Marie Casey, an aide from the vicariate’s office for pastoral service for youth.

«It will really
be a time of evangelization,» she continued, «with endeavors such as Friday’s live Way of the Cross and confessions in Rome’s central Piazza Navona; then Saturday’s Mass in Piazza del Popolo celebrated by Monsignor Stanislaw Rylko, president of the Pontifical Council of Laity, who will lead the Eucharistic procession through the streets.»

It’s a program that may hold much appeal to some. But does it risk being almost boring to the average youth of the MTV age?

Casey doesn’t think so. She explained why these expressions of popular piety are still so attractive to this generation.

«I think we recognize how uniquely beautiful it is that Christ chose the simplest substance — a piece of bread — to reveal himself,» she said.

«It is so different from the chaos of the rest of our society. When we sit in contemplation of the Host in the monstrance — we, like him, can become simpler and be stripped of all the noise and the external, accidental properties; completely stripped of the very things that are usually so important to us in our daily lives so as to become one with Christ because we are in him and he is in us in utter simplicity.»

* * *

Catherine Smibert can be reached at catherine@zenit.org.

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