.- Pope Benedict XVI expressed his solidarity with the dead and their families in Japan, as the Japanese Church makes quick plans for relief efforts following a deadly earthquake and tsunami.
On March 11, an 8.9-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Japan and a lengthy series of aftershocks sent enormous waves up to two miles inland in some low-lying areas, uprooting houses and obliterating entire towns.
Experts are comparing the power of these tidal waves to those that struck south-east Asia in 2004 and took more than 200,000 lives.
According to a report from CNN, Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology calculated that the Japanese earthquake was so strong the planet shifted on its axis by nearly four inches.
Initial estimates put the number of dead after the disaster at around 1,000. The final number is expected to rise as the water recedes.
The government is seeking to avert additional disaster in the city of Fukushima, where they are working to cool a nuclear reactor damaged by the waves. Every effort is being made to contain radioactive material and prevent contamination of the surrounding area. People within a 13-mile radius are being evacuated.
Fr. Daisuke Narui, executive director of Caritas Japan, told the Vatican's Fides news agency on March 12 that the Church's focus for the moment is on the most vulnerable.
"Currently," he said, "we are called to give a testimony to unity and closeness to all human suffering."
Caritas and the local Church are collecting information on affected areas to plan their response efforts, he said. He was particularly concerned about the city of Sendai, hit hard by a wall of sea water, because he had not yet been in contact with the Caritas director there.
On a national level, the charitable association will kickstart a solidarity campaign in all Japanese churches on March 13, with Masses being dedicated to the memory of the victims .
Bishop Marcellinus Daiji Tani of Saitama, one of the areas struck by the tsunamis, told Fides that Catholics "will respond to the tragedy of the earthquake and tsunami that struck northern Japan, with prayer and solidarity.”
He said they "must take courage, with the help of the Holy Spirit."
Bishop Tani added that the catastrophe is a reminder "that life is in the hands of God, and that life is a gift from God."
Holy See secretary of state Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone transmitted the Pope's condolences and prayers for the Japanese people in a March 11 telegram to the president of Japan's Catholic bishops, Archbishop Leo Ikenaga of Osaka.
"Deeply saddened by the sudden and tragic effects of the major earthquake and consequent tsunamis which have struck Japan's north-eastern coastal regions, his holiness Pope Benedict XVI assures all who have been afflicted of his closeness at this difficult time."
"He prays for those who have died, and upon their grieving families and friends he invokes divine blessings of strength and consolation," wrote Cardinal Bertone.
"The Holy Father also expresses his prayerful solidarity with all those providing rescue, relief and support to the victims of this disaster."
For his part, Fr. Narui of Caritas told Fides that the "painful event" could also be an opportunity to share the Gospel values of fraternity, building common good and recognizing human dignity.
"If, with our work and our witness," he concluded, "we can communicate that, then from this evil will come good.”