March 11 was the third earthquake in intensity since records began, followed by a terrible tsunami that struck the coast about 800km east of the country, levelling the port towns of the provinces of Iwate , Miyagi, Fukushima and Ibaraki. The violence of the earthquake and resulting tsunami caused considerable damage to the nuclear plants in Fukushima: a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, a tsunami, with waves over 10 meters high, a level 7 nuclear accident. All numbers that tell the extent of the tragedy that befell the Japanese, in addition to 15 thousand victims, 10 thousand "missing", to 115 thousand people living in shelters.
Months have passed and now perhaps, everyone knows all there is to know about what happened on 11 March 2011 and in subsequent days. I would rather reflect on how the Church, especially the Saitama diocese in which I work, moved swiftly in those days and how it is still working in the name of the charity of Christ.
Because the local Catholic Church - less than 0.4% of the population - chose to respond to the question, to the many "why’s" this happened, not with words but with service, in the silence.
From the earliest days of the three bishops of the dioceses most affected (Sendai, Saitama, Niigata) gathered at the Cathedral of Sendai (Bishop Martin Hiraga). The "Sendai Support Centre" for the victims of the provinces of Iwate and Miyagi was immediately created in the Sendai diocesan offices. Unable to meet the needs of his whole diocese Bishop Hiraga entrusts the area Fukushima of province and a second "Iwaki Support Centre" - at 40km from Fukushima plant 1 - to the direction of the Bishop of Saitama, Mgr. Marcellino Tani.
On March 21, Msgr. Tani - as expected - sends 4 young deacons the very night of their ordination to the earthquake zones, "you are my legs and my arms. Go quickly and be deacons to all, listen to people's needs and try to do so in the name of God and mine. " They are the first of over a hundred volunteers, priests, nuns, lay people who are sent in weekly shifts to give a hand to the efforts of the two centres. The younger volunteers are sent to Sendai to integrate the many others involved in food distribution, the running of the shelters. They are young people – in their 20's and 30's - because in the provinces of Iwate and Miyagi need strong people. To be sent to Iwaki, instead are priests and nuns, where alongside the damage of the tsunami, there is the fear of nuclear pollution, with the risk of exposing people to thyroid and blood cancer, and the loss of their procreative fertility.
The Iwaki volunteers
The official death toll in the city of Iwaki is of 301 people, 60 missing. 3300 houses destroyed. 90 thousand people living within 30km from the plant have had to leave their homes. A third of them have found refuge in the same province of Fukushima, 10 thousand in the Diocese of Saitama (there are many churches and religious houses that have opened their doors to the displaced), 20 thousand in the diocese of Niigata, the remaining 30 thousand in other parts of the country.
There are centres for people affected by the tsunami in Iwaki and others for people forced to flee their homes because located in an area declared unsafe.
The work of volunteers of the Diocese of Saitama at the Iwaki centre involves the distribution and water and food, to work with volunteers as they arrive from all over the country and abroad to move debris, to clean houses, to clear roads. But the greatest and most urgent "work", here, is to listen to people. Listening to their stories, listening to their fears about the uncertainty of the future. Because if Iwate and Miyagi, despite many difficulties, begin to talk about reconstruction, Fukushima will remain a no go zone for a long time to come. No fishing, no farming, no agricultural activity. Pain for their loved ones dead or missing, destroyed homes and the streets swept out to sea, is added fear for the future and worry about the loss of income the product of years of labour. "Listen, listen. Do not worry about what to say or how to comfort them, simply listen". Like a mantra how many times have these words been repeated to volunteers? It's a good lesson for pastoral workers, who so often do nothing but speak, "remain in silence, and in the name of God, listen. It is not for you to give the answers to these tragedies."
There are also many children among those to whom the volunteers listen. To look at them it would appear at first that nothing happened to them: playing, running, laughing, as always, but a sudden aftershock and they freeze, as night falls the battle against insomnia begins. This year, nobody has had the urge to raise the koinobori to the sky. In Japan, May 5 is the children’s day. Huge multicoloured fish-formed-flags are hoisted up long poles by children and their parents in the gardens at home, in schoolyards and temples. Their bright colours, elegant shapes moved by the wind make them symbols of childhood.
In Iwaki there were 38 kindergartens, two were swept away by the tidal wave, 11 have been damaged and can not be used. The children and teachers of these 13 nurseries have gathered into the remaining 25 child care centres, which now, however, are stretched beyond capacity. Nothing bad could be said in these times of negative birth-rates, but managing all these children from 8 am to 6 pm, without being able to play outside, is quite an undertaking. They should make a monument to these extraordinary teachers. In front of the children they have to remain serene, calm, inspire joy and zest for life, but in their hearts there is an unbridgeable void left by lost family, homes washed away and concern for their children. Yes they too need to be heard, to be at least somewhat relieved of tragic dramas that cannot be forgotten over time. The teachers of the Iwaki-Kominato kindergarten become agitated when they remember how they literally threw 60 children into the 4 minivans and fled wildly to the hills of the city to escape the wave. Their joy when they remember the fathers and mothers who came after days and days in search of their children, their tears when they speak of the mothers and fathers who never arrived. You see them happy when they conscientiously invent new dishes and menus with no fish, milk, vegetables, or of the things a child would need. Their anxiety when they speak of their children who have returned to school and who play outdoors much longer than the time limits allowed by the authorities.
Children at a primary school level are permitted a couple of hours of outdoor play per day. The teacher of a 4a class in Iwaki Ena invited us to talk to her children. Since we did not have the required authorisation to speak in classes, we did it outside on the steps of the school, in disguise and "stealing" an hour of the children’s precious play time. From the uniforms, you realize that the children come from different schools, that they have not yet integrated with each other and in addition, the number is well below the 40 pupils per class ... The volunteers tell them a story: the story of a child who has lost a shoe as he climbed on the bus that took him to school. There are some who tell that they lost their Game Boy but can live the same without it. Then they tell a different story: that of an angel who goes around to collect the tears of the people and then pours them into the flower pots of his lord, taking care that not one is lost. The story is a little 'difficult, the children usually never follow it completely. But all of their eyes are glued to the coloured drawings that accompany the narration of the story, some eyes fill with tears. In Japan, stories are never commented upon, there is never a moral to be taught. To be beautiful a story must say something that is understood only with the heart, in silence.
On trips to the shelters we meet and listen to a bit of everything. There is the Yuttari-kan shelter where 65 elderly are housed who were forced to leave their hospice because it is too close to the infamous power plant. Almost everyone is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, a good portion of them may not be well aware of what happened or why they are in a different place. Yet there are those among them who have not lost the light of reason and who speak of years spent working in the power plant. They gives lessons on nuclear energy, its costs and production risks, "everyone speaks badly about the plant, but there are people in there now who are giving up their lives for us, both before and now. And they're all young people, with wives and children. And all the others who have been left without a job how will they support their families? And a city like Tokyo with 30 million people how can it do without nuclear energy to meet all its needs. It is not a question of nuclear energy, but security. I wonder if anyone will understand". We keep quiet. This time it is difficult to know who is wrong and who is right.
In the Ena shelter, we listen to the story of a man who on hearing the tsunami warning fled to the hills, once the wave had withdrawn he returned to look for something in his house when, without warning the second wave struck. "I had water up to my armpits. I do not know where I found the strength to get out". In Ena, the "smallest" and the sick remain during the day, anyone who has a little health goes in search of work, or back through the rubble of their homes to search for a items of personal importance. Here there is no privacy, everyone lives in one room - which is the school gym – the shelter director, the first time that the volunteers visited, said "We are Samurai, we'll make it alone. 'Then he overcame his pride and opened the doors and heart: the last time 40 volunteers arrived. 35 young Vietnamese were living in a parish in the Diocese of Saitama who wanted to do something for the refugees. They came equipped with everything and prepared Vietnamese food for an army of people. These Vietnamese volunteers have lived the same experiences in the shelters that housed the boat people during the war in Vietnam: they were children, perhaps they barely remember those experiences, working in silence and in silence, before returning to their city on the northern outskirts of Tokyo, they go to the places where the tsunami destroyed everything. And pray facing the sea.
The Chuodai Komin-kan shelter is a beautiful one, with rooms where one or two families can live an almost normal life. There are about thirty people. The first time, the volunteers arrived with a medical team and were presented as a heart team. They are not cardiologists, but soon realize which heart this name refers to. A woman can not find peace because in a few days time, large mechanical diggers will begin to clear the rubble where she lived. Her son is among the number of missing, the sea has not yet returned him, maybe his body is still right there under the mountain of debris, "and if the bulldozers if they take him away without noticing? Who will bury my son? ".
In the evening we return to the rectory, which is home to the volunteers. For a moment the radio stops speaking about the earthquake. During the day the funeral took place of a famous Japanese singer from the 1970-1980’s. She died of cancer, but days before her death she recorded a message that her husband broadcast to all those who have known and loved her: "Two weeks have passed since the earthquake. I would like to give my condolences to all those who have lost loved ones and friends. I too have struggled with all my strength against disease, but most likely I have lost. But when I completely loose my battle, from Heaven I will be helpful to all of you who are in pain. I think it will be my duty up there". We pray for the woman we met that day, so that she may find a little 'comfort in the beautiful words of this wonderful woman.
The entire Church is close at hand
One of the recent activities of the volunteers was to welcome Pope Benedict’s envoy of to Iwaki. On Saturday, May 14, Cardinal. Robert Sarah President of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, accompanied by the nuncio, Msgr. Alberto Bottari de Castello and the Under-Secretary of Cor Unum, Msgr. Tejado Segundo Muñoz came to Japan for the celebration of a Mass of thanksgiving for the beatification of Pope John Paul II. He wanted to bring the concern of Pope Benedict XVI to the people of Fukushima Prefecture, affected by the earthquake and tsunami. Led by Bishop Marcelino Tani, first the cardinal visited the church of Yumoto, in Iwaki city. Welcomed by kindergarten children of the Catholic Church of Onahama, he explained the reason for his visit to the children and their families: "The Pope has asked me to come and I come in his name to tell you of the closeness and encouragement of the Holy Father for all of you. "
From the church of Onahama the group set out on a short bus tour of about an hour to the coastal areas of the city, those most affected by the fury of the tsunami. Some Christians affected by the tragedy acted as the Cardinal’s guides. The testimony of Mr. Yoshida Kazunori of Hisanohama (70 victims and dozens missing in this small coastal village) was deeply moving. He showed Card. Sarah, the site of his home office where he carried out his job as director of the local fishermen's union.
Cardinal Sarah, during the press conference held in the ruins of the village of Hisanohama, 30 km. from nuclear power plant, spoke of the constant prayer that Benedict XVI continues to raise for the victims of the earthquake and reiterated the Catholic Church's concern for the needy, thereby encouraging human fellowship and the concrete charity of Christ.
Thus Lent this year, had no need for special sacrifices. Everyone was walking alongside Jesus who carries his cross for the salvation of all. Or rather he was walking alongside us, although we did not recognize his face. Easter arrived almost without us even noticing it, but as a great gift of hope to all of us, recalling the victory of life over death. Many say that the time of Christians has come to Japan. The time to proclaim that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, why He who knew abandonment, loneliness and death, descended into hell and rose again. And he is alive among us.