Archbishop on Katrina's Impact: 'Joy Amid the Suffering'

VATICAN CITY — Archbishop Paul Cordes, president of the Vatican's charitable arm Cor Unum, knows first-hand the enormous rebuilding project that lies ahead for the Americans living in areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Less than two weeks after the storm, he toured the flood-ravaged region for five days as Pope Benedict XVI's personal envoy.

Archbishop Cordes spoke with Register correspondent Edward Pentin in an e-mail interview about the suffering — and the faith — he witnessed during his U.S. visit.

What particular aspect of your trip to the devastated populations affected by Hurricane Katrina made the most impact on you?

The aspect that most affected me during the visit was the contrast between the total destruction of much of the area we visited, accompanied by the faith and high spirits of the victims, and those helping them in spite of their losses. I have been to many devastated areas, but saw an impressive level of both hope for the future and drive to recover and rebuild.

The work of Catholic Charities USA and numerous other charitable organizations has been exceptional and immediate. I even found that there was joy amidst the suffering, to which the Vietnamese community enthusiastically gave witness.

The states hardest hit have large Catholic populations. How much did people's faith help them through the catastrophe?

The faith of the people who have suffered in this disaster has played 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. Many of the people I visited expressed 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 where they live.

Because of the large Catholic population, the bishops of the region have a very important role, as their institutions — especially hospitals and schools — are in the very midst of the recovery effort. Without faith, this would have been a complete disaster.

Many acts of heroism were reported by priests, religious and lay people. How much of this did you witness, and do you have any stories of heroism you can recount?

It is true that there were many selfless and heroic acts made to save lives and to rescue those in danger that were picked up by the media. There are still thousands of others, who, without any accolades, dedicated themselves to helping whoever was in need.

I met countless people who had come in from all over the United States to help; the police, fire and emergency crews, who had to be ordered out by their superiors just so they could sleep after having gone without for days on end; medical personnel, who suddenly faced a hospital at three or four times its capacity, and yet kept on answering the cries of the suffering; priests and religious, who stayed with their people who could not flee to safety; relief workers and military personnel, who took extra shifts and canceled vacations in order to look for the bodies of the dead and any remaining survivors.

These are but a few examples of the goodness I encountered.

What is the Church doing now to help rebuild the areas affected?

Through Catholic charitable organizations on the diocesan and national levels, and primarily through Catholic Charities USA, the response has been dramatic in the United States. It is also important to note that parishes and dioceses from around the world have been sending whatever help they could, in a beautiful sign of communion with local Churches that have usually been the “donors” in the past to relief efforts to those same countries.

What practical help has Cor Unum been offering those hit by the hurricane, and what will the charity be doing in the future?

Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, sent monetary gifts through Cor Unum to the principal dioceses affected, and through the local Caritas agencies, long-term assistance has been organized and will continue to look after the ongoing needs of the displaced and dispossessed.

Even more important than material aid were the occasions for prayer together — bishops, evacuees, rescue workers, politicians, etc. — especially the celebration of the Eucharist in Baton Rouge; the experience of bearing burdens together as members of the worldwide Church; and the compassion of our Holy Father, who personally sent me on the visit. All of these were sources of hope and energy.

Many Americans called the hurricane “our tsunami.” With you having also visited Asia earlier this year, what comparisons or contrasts can be made between these natural disasters?

To be honest, the scenes were rather different. In Southeast Asia, the tsunami obliterated everything, and so many people died — thousands and thousands. In New Orleans, the sea took over land, and visible neighborhoods, churches, schools, hospitals, and shopping centers; boats and barges were found often far inland. In Biloxi, where tornados had contributed to the devastation, entire neighborhoods were reduced to twisted frames and rubble.

While both events involved the sea, they were very different storms and with very different effects. The human suffering and heartache were equally real for both, however.

You mentioned that you were the only foreign representative of a nation-state to visit the area. To what extent would you have liked to see other states sending representatives to the region?

While it is true that I had the privilege of representing our Holy Father to the good people afflicted by the hurricane, and the only foreign representative to visit in that time, it should also be noted that doing so was not so easy, or even practical, with roads and other means of transportation destroyed and those available being used by relief personnel.

There were other ways to respond, though. While visiting Biloxi, I was pleased to see a detachment of sailors from Holland, as well as some soldiers from Mexico, hard at work clearing roads and helping with the cleanup effort.

Most Americans had never experienced the encouragement of friends from far away, since they usually see themselves as providing the same throughout the world. It was a very good and positive experience for all, and the victims are grateful. Overall, those involved in political life were very open to collaboration.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.