Japan and reflections on spiritual disaster preparedness

Geologists say that Japan’s massive earthquake shifted the Asian nation 13 feet closer to the United States. 

But because of the relentless advance in communications and media technologies, it felt a lot closer than that. 

In a way that virtually would have been unimaginable even five years ago, the world was able to watch the unfolding of the triple-apocalypse — record-sized earthquake, massive tsunami, nuclear-power-plant disaster — in real time, streamed over television, computer screens and hand-held devices. 

The news reports were accompanied by detailed images from satellites orbiting the earth, and oceanographers’ computer models were able to predict with remarkable accuracy (on brightly colored maps) when and where the tsunami would hit other continents, including the Americas. A lot of the most compelling video footage coming out of Japan was not from traditional sources like commercial television crews, but from people’s cell phones. 

Technology also came to the rescue in a way we’re likely to see increasingly in the future. Search engine giant Google created a special “crisis response” page, complete not only with the latest information but also with ways to donate and a custom database to help people track down lost loved ones or let family members and friends know they’re safe. 

The outpouring of support and relief assistance for the Japanese people was immediate. In the hours after the quake and tsunami, Pope Benedict XVI directed $100,000 to the Japanese bishops. Catholic Relief Services, the foreign aid arm of the U.S. bishops’ conference, also launched a fund-raising campaign (for more information, see crs.org/japan). 

A lot of times, it seems natural disasters strike hardest in poor countries. (And, of course, they generally do — the earthquake last year in Haiti, for example, was much smaller but is thought to have killed more than 300,000 people.) 

So it can be sobering for Westerners, with all our technology and disaster preparedness plans, to see such devastation wrought on a country that was prepared better than any other for this kind of event. How would we fare if similarly tested? 

But there’s also a more fundamental and personal question we should all be asking ourselves, especially in Lent: What’s the state of our spiritual disaster preparedness? The dramatic loss of life in Japan serves as a reminder that our time on this earth is temporary, and our expiration date is something over which we have very little control. 

There’s an old Catholic prayer that contains the petition: “Give us the grace to prepare for our last hour by a devout and holy life, and protect us against a sudden and unprovided death.”

In that effort, as you’ll see in this issue, confession is also one offer you won’t want to miss (see In Focus, Pages 9-12, and editorial, Page 19).