By Alejandro Bermudez
I moved to Peru with my family in 1966 when I was 5 years old. Three months after our arrival, Peru was shocked by one of its historic earthquakes. I remember it being a sunny afternoon and I was in kindergarten.
Four years later, when I was 9, Peru suffered one of its most devastating quakes in May 1970, which killed some 15,000 people in the Northern Andes. Another major one followed in 1974, this time devastating the central coast.
With more than 15 earthquakes on my record, I was accustomed to all types of them -- until Aug. 15, the feast of the Assumption, when a magnitude-8 earthquake struck the western coast.
While I was getting ready to leave my office that day, the earth started shaking. At the beginning it was like previous quakes. Then its intensity increased. It felt like I was on a small boat on a stormy sea.
After a minute of intense shaking, people in the neighboring buildings started to do what most Peruvians do when earth tremors turn into major earthquakes: pray Hail Marys and shout "O Lord, appease your wrath!" -- a prayer inherited from the famous 16th-century Franciscan preacher St. Francis Solano for times of natural disasters.
Way into the second minute, I started asking myself if I was prepared to die and face God. I was forced into an examination of conscience.
The impressive, long quake finally stopped after more than two minutes, and my thoughts immediately went to my fellow Peruvians: Where was the epicenter? Was it in the poor Andean region, thus leaving scores dead like Huaraz in 1970 or Arequipa in 2001? Or was it on the coast, bringing destructive tidal waves like Chorrillos in 1974?
Soon enough, the news came from the coast of Southern Peru: In the province of Ica the earthquake killed at least 540, injured more than 1,500 and destroyed more than 20,000 homes. The port city of Pisco, 150 miles south of our country's capital Lima, sustained the most damage.
In a tragic moment during the earthquake, the dome of the parish church of San Clemente cracked and collapsed in on an estimated 300 people attending Mass. Rescue workers recovered the bodies of 148 people inside the church, and news reports say it is not clear how many of the estimated 300 people inside escaped.
The pastor, Spanish-born Vincentian Father Alfonso Berrade said he watched in horror as his church disappeared in a cloud of dust and ruble. His vicar, Father Emilio Torres, was inside. A day later, rescuers found Father Torres alive under the altar.
Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, archbishop of Lima and primate of Peru, said on national television that some people have asked him why God allowed a disaster that killed so many innocent people.
"Evil is certainly a mystery. We cannot penetrate God's plans, but we can rest assured, by the mystery of the Cross, that he is a loving God," he said. "Maybe the outpouring of Christian love and solidarity is the way in which he writes straight with crooked lines."
There are, indeed, people who ask "Why, God?" in such circumstances, but my experience is similar to Father Berrade's. "In all my years as a priest here," he said after the earthquake. "I can't get accustomed to how admirable the faith of this people is, how strong and deep it is."
That is my experience. It is hard, even for a veteran journalist, to hold back tears when you see people shouting "Miracle! Miracle!" when Father Emilio was rescued, or when they found a statue of Jesus, which stood at the entrance to the church, intact. A statue of St. Martin de Porres, one of Peru's patron saints, also survived intact.
It was the same people who lost loved ones in the collapse of the church who maintained a two-night vigil next to the corpses of their fellow Catholics because both the hospital and the morgue had collapsed.
"Suffering is impossible to describe. We saw people mourning their loved ones in the streets, or waiting in anguish to see if their relatives could be rescued on time to survive from torn-down buildings," Father Gilmer Cacho, a priest from the Peruvian Christian Life Movement, told me. He volunteered to provide spiritual assistance in the area of Pisco and Chincha, another city almost completely flattened by the quake.
"Despite all the suffering, people clapped for us at every town, asked for our blessing, came to confession, requested last rites or funerals for their loved ones or even emergency baptisms," Father Cacho said. "We led Rosaries and chaplets, distributed medals and holy cards all around." I was impressed when he told me, "People were longing for spiritual nurturing as much as they asked for food and water."
Father Cacho saw plenty of suffering in the days after the earthquake, but never bitterness or complaints against God. "On the contrary, people were holding tighter to their faith to a point that they were evangelizing me in some sense," he said.
On Sunday, three days after the earthquake, I turned on the television to see yet more horror stories of the consequences of the earthquake in Ica. Nevertheless, I went to bed with the image of an elderly lady from Chincha being asked by a journalist if she thought this was a punishment from God.
"No!" she shot back without doubting a second. "God does not punish. He is just giving us an opportunity to unite, is giving a chance for those who have more to give to those who have less."
Nothing could soothe an aching heart more.
If you want to donate to recovery efforts, contact:
Catholic Relief Services
c/o Peru earthquake fund
P.O. Box 17090
Baltimore, MD 21203-7090
1 (877) HELP-CRS
Christian Life Movement
c/o Earthquake Peru
1060 Saint Francis Way
Denver, CO 80204
Alejandro Bermudez is a veteran Catholic journalist who lives in Peru.