Miracles and Horrors
National Catholic Register
Tsunami spares Church; Catholics aid victims
VAILANKANNI, India — Like many Southeast Asian coastal areas, the Diocese of Thanjavur was hit hard by tsunamis resulting from the magnitude-9 earthquake beneath the Indian Ocean Dec. 26. As of Jan. 3, the death toll was more than 155,000 in 12 countries.
But diocesan officials say they saw a miracle at the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health amid the tragedy that took more than 1,000 lives locally, including those of hundreds of pilgrims.
"The killer waves surged and came up to the entrance of the main basilica where the statue of Our Lady of Vailankanni is present and receded after touching the first steps of the basilica's outer door," church officials said in a Dec. 30 statement.
"Faith always rewards," they added.
Quoting eyewitnesses, diocesan officials said the waves stopped at the entrance of India's most popular Marian shrine, which draws 20 million pilgrims a year. Water inundated a bus stand a quartermile behind the shrine, but on same elevation.
"Who can deny and say this is not a miracle? The powerful blessing of Our Lady of Vailankanni has saved thousands of lives, as people who were inside the basilica were untouched by the monstrous killer waves," the statement said.
More than 2,000 pilgrims — including hundreds attending Mass — were at the basilica and its sprawling compound when the waves struck.
The shrine, facing the Bay of Bengal, has a history as a miraculous safe haven. Portuguese sailors escaped a devastating cyclone in the bay in the 17th century and built the shrine in thanksgiving (see sidebar). Today, the shrine is a replica of Our Lady of Lourdes in France.
"The shrine is just 325 feet from the beach. Yet, the water did not enter the basilica compound," said Bishop Devadass Ambrose of Thanjavur who has been camping at the basilica to oversee relief work despite lack of water and electricity for the first four days after the tragedy.
Life Amid Death
Speaking at his weekly general audience at the Vatican Dec. 29, Pope John Paul II voiced the deep concern Catholics have for victims of the tragedy, which left beaches from India to Thailand littered with corpses. "The reports coming from Asia reveal more and more the enormity of this immense catastrophe," he said.
United Nations officials in Geneva said Dec. 29 that up to 5 million people lacked basic necessities such as food, water or sanitation.
The Holy Father praised the international community for rapidly mobilizing aid efforts and said the Church's charitable agencies were doing the same.
In Baltimore, Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops' international relief and development agency, committed $25 million for emergency relief and long-term rehabilitation programs in Asia and said it expects that figure to increase. The agency's website crashed temporarily Dec. 29 because response to an appeal for donations was so great.
For the Thanjavur diocese, the need was more immediate. Weary volunteers spent three days searching through 800 rotting corpses. They said they saw smaller miracles amid the tragedy. On Dec. 29, they removed from the rubble a 35-year-old mother who somehow had remained alive. She was clutching the decaying body of her child.
"The Holy Mother has worked wonders despite the tragedy here," said Father Joseph Lionel, the Thanjavur diocesan chancellor coordinating relief work at the basilica.
With the rescued mother returning home healthy from the basilica's hospital, Father Lionel said, "We are glad that it has ended in joy instead of despair."
Meanwhile, the most popular Catholic shrine in India is gradually limping back to normalcy. On the evening of Dec. 30, the diocese stopped its search for missing pilgrims and locals in the mountains of garbage on the seashore and roads. Bishop Ambrose ended the search with a solemn memorial Mass for the dead.
Church volunteers picked up more than 850 bodies within a half-mile radius of the shrine even as the Tamil state machinery focused its relief work in Nagapattanam township. Seven miles from the shrine, the township was the worst affected spot on the sprawling east coast of India.
The tsunamis swallowed up several thousand people, along with some fishing villages. The Catholic village of Aryankattu Theru was consumed by the sea.
"We hope the worst is over," Bishop Ambrose told the Register Jan. 3. He's set up temporary residence at the shrine — 55 miles from the diocesan headquarters — supervising the relief work.
A week after the tragedy, Bishop Ambrose pointed out that relatives of dozens of Catholic pilgrims are still contacting the shrine to find out if their loved ones were among those buried by church volunteers. Photos of unidentified bodies are pasted on the shrine's notice board.
Meanwhile, Bishop Ambrose said relief workers are bringing orphans from neighboring villages to the shrine, pleading with the church to look after them.
"We will certainly take care of them," Bishop Ambrose said. The diocese is also housing several hundred locals — rendered homeless by the tsunami — in the school attached to the Marian shrine.
Anto Akkara filed this story from Vailankanni, India.
(Catholic News Service contributed to this story.)
The Lourdes of the East
VAILANKANNI, India — There is no historic document to establish when the first church was built at Vailankanni village, 187 miles south of Chennai.
However, there are several legends about the thatched shed built by a man who had an apparition of the Holy Mother carrying the infant Jesus in her arms at the spot he had the apparition in the 16th century. Since the Holy Mother had earlier appeared before a crippled boy and healed him, the church came to be known as the Church of Arokia Matha, meaning "Mother of Good Health."
According to legends, the Arokia Matha later rescued Portuguese merchant sailors after their ship was wrecked in cyclone.
When the sailors reached the shore, they were taken by local fishermen to the thatched chapel. In thanksgiving, they built a small permanent chapel and improved on it during subsequent visits. The sailors are said to have dedicated the chapel to Our Lady on Sept. 8 in memory of their safe landing at Vailankanni.
The greatest feast at the Marian shrine falls in September, when more than 1 million people flock there. In 1962, the Vailankanni shrine was elevated to a basilica, and in 1964, Portuguese missionaries handed over control to the local Catholic church.
True to Indian tradition, Arokia Matha of Vailankanni is always draped in an Indian sari and devotees bring thousands of costly silk saris in exchange for favors received. Whenever the sari on the statue is changed, it is cut into small pieces and distributed among the devotees as a relic.
The Museum of Offerings at the shrine complex tells of miraculous healings at the site. The shrine receives replicas of hundreds of hearts, eyes, hands, legs and even stethoscopes made of silver and gold, depending on the ailments the Blessed Mother is said to cure.
With the shrine even holding out hope to childless couples, rows of roadside haircutting shops can be seen around the church as many couples shave their heads in thanksgiving.
National Catholic Register © 2005
9-15 January 2005, page 1