VATICAN CITY, JAN. 16, 2010 ( As disaster strikes Haiti, the eyes of the world are being directed toward the poorest country of the Western world, whose long suffering has long been forgotten, says Cardinal Josef Cordes.

The president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum spoke with ZENIT about the aftermath of the 7.0-magnitude quake that hit the country Tuesday, and destroyed its capital of Port-au-Prince.

In this interview the cardinal discusses the damage done to the country, as well as what will be needed to help Haiti in the days, months and years ahead.

ZENIT: What do you know about the damage of the earthquake?

Cardinal Cordes: Initial communication was difficult, but we are beginning to receive reports from Catholic agencies working directly on the scene, such as Catholic Relief Services (the international relief and development agency of the U.S. bishops), national Caritas representatives being sent to Haiti by their bishops, Cross International Catholic Outreach, St. Vincent de Paul Confederation.

Certain facts are known through the media (loss of life, homes, etc). More specifically for us, it was the apostolic nuncio in Santo Domingo who had the first contact via e-mail with Archbishop Bernardito Auza, apostolic nuncio in Haiti. Archbishop Auza is informing us about the losses to the Church, both in terms of life and structural damage. The archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Joseph Serge-Miot, whom he described as "good" and "always smiling," was killed as he was thrown from his balcony by the force of the earthquake. Other priests, religious and at least nine seminarians have been buried under the rubble. The cathedral, chancery, and all of the parish churches have been destroyed. Archbishop Auza is visiting Catholic and other establishments, many of them ruined, to express the closeness of the Church and Holy Father.

ZENIT: What is the immediate need?

Cardinal Cordes: Every natural catastrophe is unique, but our long experience of previous disasters (e.g. Tsunami, Katrina) shows two distinct phases:

-- Short-term: manpower is needed to save lives, provide the basic necessities (water, food, shelter, prevention of disease), restore order;

-- Long-term: reconstruction, offering spiritual and psychological help, especially when media attention fades away.

Benedict XVI has called on all people of good will to be generous and concrete in their response in order to meet the immediate needs of our suffering brothers and sisters in Haiti (General Audience, Jan. 13, 2010). It is important that we are giving tangible help through the charitable agencies of the Catholic Church. Much is being organized and encouraged in this regard throughout the world.

For example, the episcopal conference of Italy has set Jan. 24 as a day of prayer and charity for the people of Haiti. The national embassies to the Holy See are organizing the sacrifice of the Holy Mass to be offered for our suffering brothers and sisters. We must remember to intercede through prayer and not only money for the suffering of Haiti.

ZENIT: What is being done concretely by the Holy See/Pontifical Council Cor Unum?

Cardinal Cordes: In his appeal for assistance, Benedict XVI asked specifically that the Catholic Church mobilize herself at once through her charitable institutions. Several Catholic organizations have already begun working, offering especially personnel with expertise at this stage (e.g. the national Caritas of Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, France, Austria, the Order of Malta). Cross International Catholic Outreach is at work through its office in Port-au-Prince. We are receiving daily updates from them all.

Whenever a situation like this arises, it is the custom for one agency to coordinate relief efforts. To this end, in the hours following the earthquake, our Pontifical Council was in direct contact with Catholic Relief Services. We asked that it coordinate the response at this stage in view of the 300 plus staff it has in Haiti, its long history of over 50 years in the country, as well as its expertise in dealing with similar disasters worldwide and its resources. The President of CRS has assured us: "We stand committed and ready to inform and coordinate the response of the Church in whatever way possible so that her response may be an effective sign of God's love."

We know from the apostolic nuncio in Haiti that meetings are taking place with CRS and Caritas Haiti at the Nunciature in Port-au-Prince in order that the urgent local needs are addressed. It is essential that the local Church be heard. To this end, we are pleased that those Haitian bishops, who have been able to travel, have been present at these meetings.

ZENIT: How much does people's faith help them through a catastrophe such as this?

Cardinal Cordes: The faith of the people who have suffered in this disaster will play a critical role in not only bringing relief to their physical injuries and losses, but also in addressing the spiritual dimension and meaning to be found in such a catastrophe. In visiting disaster areas before and talking with survivors, many express their gratitude to God for sparing their lives and for the generous outpouring of assistance made available to them by family, friends, neighbors, and Churches worldwide. Because of the large Catholic population (80% of Haitians are Catholics), faith and the concrete presence/witness of the Church will have a very important role in the present tragedy.

Our Pontifical Council Cor Unum had already planned that the next meeting of the Populorum Progressio Foundation would take place in Santo Domingo this coming July. The foundation, established by Pope John Paul II, is to help the indigenous peoples of the Latin American and Caribbean countries. In the past, we have given much help to Haiti and we shall continue to do so. Of course, our spiritual closeness is of primary importance. We shall be certain to celebrate the Holy Eucharist on that occasion with bishops coming from different countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Without faith, this tragedy would turn into a complete disaster. That is why it will be essential for our brothers and sisters to pray together; experience Christians worldwide sharing their burdens as members of God's family; know the compassion of our Holy Father. All these become sources of hope and energy. In His first encyclical, "Deus Caritas Est," Pope Benedict invites us to recall "St. Augustine who gives us faith's answer to our sufferings: 'Si comprehendis, non est Deus' -- 'if you understand him, he is not God.'" The Holy Father adds: "Even in their bewilderment and failure to understand the world around them, Christians continue to believe in the 'goodness and loving kindness of God' (Titus 3:4)" (No. 38).   

ZENIT: Will good come from this tragedy?

Cardinal Cordes: This is a disaster that has caused immense loss of life and suffering. Many years will be needed for the nation to be rebuilt physically and the people to recover in their spirits. For this reason, the Church must remain present even as others move away.

But already we see good rising from the ruins. The eyes of the world are being open to the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, whose long suffering was all but forgotten. This tragedy shows that we depend on each other and must care for our suffering brothers and sisters, just as we did during the Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. So we must ensure that the necessary assistance now being shown to Haiti continues in the long-term, for example through setting up better local Caritas structures and links with government development ministries of wealthier countries and help agencies.

We are witnessing and hearing of many selfless and heroic acts made to save lives and to rescue those in danger.  There are still thousands of others, who, coming from all over the world and without any accolades, are dedicating themselves to helping whoever is in nee d. People are being moved to give of themselves spiritually and materially to help the poor and suffering. In the coming days and weeks, I am convinced that we shall encounter in the midst of this catastrophe many examples of goodness.

Above all, it is with trustworthy hope in the Crucified and Risen Lord Jesus that Christians face the present. In his encyclical "Spe Salvi," Pope Benedict speaks of the sufferings of this moment being borne through hope in the future. It is not that Christians know the details of what awaits them, but they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness: "Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well" (Spe Salvi No. 2).