Cardinal Czerny leads prayer service after Tonga volcano

Heavy ash fall is seen over Tonga, Jan. 17, 2022, several days after a volcanic eruption. Heavy ash fall is seen over Tonga, Jan. 17, 2022, several days after a volcanic eruption. | NZ Defence Force via Wikimedia (CC BY 4.0)

Cardinal Michael Czerny on Monday led a prayer service for Tonga, after an underwater volcanic eruption caused a devastating tsunami earlier this month.

“Tonga is a little known name, and for us it is a distant reality. Yet, those who suffer are never far from us who in Jesus recognize ourselves as ‘children always loved’ by the Father, called to share together with the human family a unique destiny, in the common home that is the earth,” Cardinal Czerny said Jan. 24 in Rome’s Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere.

Seen in satellite images from space, scientists have called the volcanic blast in the South Pacific on Jan. 15 the largest eruption in the world in three decades.

Some of the archipelago’s outlying islands were hit by 49-foot-high waves which destroyed homes, the Associated Press reported on Jan. 19.

Communications from Tonga were cut off after the eruption. Reuters has reported at least three known deaths from the tsunami waves.

“The majority of the population miraculously managed to avoid the worst as only three people lost their lives,” Czerny, 75, said during the prayer service. “However, the material damage is so enormous that it will take a long time to return to normal life. People have lost houses, plantations, machinery and materials for fishing and agriculture.”

“The government, the population, the Church and other entities are assessing the impact of this disaster in order to begin the work of reconstruction, inviting the international community to contribute,” he said.

The prayer service was hosted by the Catholic Sant’Egidio community. 

Cardinal Czerny serves as the interim prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, pending the appointment of new leadership following the resignation of Cardinal Peter Turkson, 73, in December.

Czerny has been under-secretary of the dicastery’s Migrants and Refugees Section since 2017.

The prayer service included the reading of a passage from the 38th chapter of the Book of Job.

The chapter begins: “Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm and said: Who is this who darkens counsel with words of ignorance? Gird up your loins now, like a man; I will question you, and you tell me the answers! Where were you when I founded the earth?”

“In the passage we have heard, God speaks to Job from the storm, subjecting him to the pressure of the unexpected, the unexpected upheaval of atmospheric phenomena, and challenges him as a human being to measure himself against the fundamental questions of existence,” Czerny said.

“Instead of answering his questions, of throwing light on what for Job remains obscure and indecipherable, God widens the field of the unknown and increases the questions,” Czerny explained: “‘Who are you?’, ‘Where were you?’, ‘Can you?’, ‘Do you know?’. It challenges every obvious answer, every cliché, every pre-understanding and forces him to recognize his own inability to have answers and control over everything.”

Society, the cardinal said, has been living under two great illusions in recent decades.

“On the one hand, as Pope Francis reminded us in his prayer in St. Peter’s Square during the pandemic, we have deluded ourselves ‘to remain always healthy in a sick world,’ in a world wounded by predatory exploitation; on the other hand, we have also deluded ourselves that we are almost omnipotent, that we dominate nature, the world, as if it were our own work,” he said.

“In this sense,” Czerny said, “Job’s story can be very revealing for us, because it shows us how presumption in the face of reality, and therefore also in the face of God, is an attitude inherent in the human heart, even in the most just and religious.”

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Pope Francis offered prayers for the people of Tonga during his weekly audience on Jan. 19. 

“I am spiritually close to all the afflicted people, imploring God for relief for their suffering. I invite everyone to join me in praying for these brothers and sisters,” he said.

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