VATICAN CITY—Mud slides have destroyed the lives, homes, and work of tens of thousands of Central Americans. Having seen sights he will never be able to erase from his mind, Archbishop Paul Cordes, president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum returned to Rome after visiting Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. But in this indescribable tragedy, he witnessed the unexpected: faith proved stronger than ‘Mitch.’

Archbishop Cordes shared with ZENIT his experiences during a week which made him feel like papal envoy to the Apocalypse.

ZENIT: Can you tell us about the scenes that made the greatest impression on you in these stricken countries?

Archbishop Cordes: After celebrating Mass in Posoltega, in the diocese of Leon, Nicaragua, a woman came up to me. She was a mother of six children, four of whom perished in the mud slides. She couldn't speak, but only cry. The trauma of the tragedy was a month old, but it was engraved on her face. She will never get over it completely.

Later we went to the south of Leon to visit a refugee camp of homeless survivors. The parents and adults were cleaning the debris. We only saw the children. They were very happy to see us. At the end of our visit, they sang for us and their faces filled with joy. But there was one among them, about thirteen years old, who showed no reaction at all. I took him by the hand and I said: “Have courage!” He didn't look at me, not even once. Will he ever smile again?

You have said publicly that you are amazed at the people's faith after such scourging. What did you see that makes you say this?

In the outskirts of Managua, we were taken to see two camps of victims who had lost everything. One is near the Tipitapa river which joins the lake of Managua with that of Nicaragua. The floods had forced the people to leave the land. They were living in a camp in inhuman conditions.

They took us to a statue of Our Lady where we prayed and sang. At the end someone shouted “Long live the Mother of God!” Everyone answered with a force worthy of a football stadium: “Long live the Mother of God! Long live the Catholic Church!” I had the impression the majority of them, notwithstanding the unbearable experience they lived through, had not lost faith in the protection of heaven.

In the other camp, we saw the same thing. There were at least 70,000 people in the sun that day, but their housing was plastic or tents. When we arrived at the camp, it seemed that not a soul was alive. The first to appear and greet us were children, then youths and adults. Seeing we were clergymen, they crowded around us. Here, too, we were taken to a statue of the Immaculate Conception and, after the prayer, the cry arose, “Long live the Pope!”

During your stay, you said the Holy See and European Catholics will give more donations to these communities. How much has been given and how much more can be expected?

To date, Caritas of Europe and the United States have donated $50 million. Spain alone has contributed $28 million. Other countries of Latin American have made contributions, like Mexico and Argentina. Costa Rica has sent a group of volunteers, an important gesture in a situation of discouragement. But after attending to the most urgent needs, long term reconstruction must begin. Some national Caritas associations are already committed to this end—for example, Spain, Germany, the United States. They held a meeting in Honduras from November 20-21 with this objective in mind. In the end, it is not about plugging holes but about catching up economically. According to some experts, this could take a generation. Consequently, these communities will need help for a long time.

In some of the countries, Nicaragua and Honduras in particular, the Church is in charge of the distribution of international aid. How is this working out? Why has the Church been entrusted with this task?

The Church has the network of the parishes, including some [in] isolated places. Ö With the cooperation of members of the episcopal conference of Honduras, we have seen for ourselves the most urgent needs are being addressed: drinking water, medicines, and basic foods. These goods were transported in trucks and helicopters. The Church was given this responsibility, both an honor and a burden, not just for practical reasons, but because of her credibility and honesty. Sadly, many take advantage of the tragedies of others to enrich themselves.

The countries of Central America lived in extreme poverty before the hurricane struck. You, yourself, saw in El Salvador communities which were unaffected by the hurricane whose ordinary situation is almost as acute as that of the stricken. How can Catholics contribute to national reconstruction? How can they break the vicious circle of social injustice, constantly criticized but never changed?

During the trip, all we heard were complaints about the foreign debt. In Nicaragua the president told us that every year the country paid $18 million in interest for a Russian loan. He did not mention the debt with other countries. Obviously, an economy cannot subsist in such circumstances. This debt puts a stop to the initiative and courage needed to start new projects.

At the same time, a sense of social justice must be developed and reinforced in the population. The Holy Father constantly refers to this, for example, in his talk during the ad limina visit of the bishops of Honduras on September 26, 1983. The Pope's words must be heeded, corruption must be combated, and the poor must be looked after—this is an evangelical obligation.