The people of Tonga have lost everything, and they will need time, help and prayers to recover from one of the most devastating volcanic eruptions in modern times, said Cardinal Michael Czerny.
"The government, the people, the church and other organizations are evaluating the impact of this calamity in order to begin the work of reconstruction, inviting the international community to help," the cardinal said in a homily during a prayer service Jan. 24 for the people of the islands of Tonga.
Cardinal Czerny, interim prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, said Cardinal Soane Mafi of Tonga informed the office earlier in the day that the vast majority of the people "miraculously succeeded in avoiding the worst since only three people lost their life."
"Nonetheless, the material damage is so enormously high that it will take a lot of time to return to normal life," according to the Tongan cardinal, he said.
"The people have lost homes, fields, machinery and equipment for fishing and agriculture," Cardinal Czerny told people gathered for the prayer at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere. The prayer service was sponsored by the Community of Sant'Egidio.
A massive underwater volcano erupted near Tonga Jan. 15, triggering a series of tsunamis that inundated coastal communities, destroying everything in its wake, contaminating water supplies with saltwater and cutting off power and communications. Ash, which continued to fall days after the blast, also was contaminating water sources and hampered initial efforts to bring in outside aid and rescue teams for the more than 100,000 people living on the archipelago's islands.
Jim Garvin, chief scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said the eruption was hundreds of times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb.
The eruption sent volcanic material as high as 25 miles (40 km.) into the atmosphere and generated tsunami waves up to 49 feet (15 m.) high, the agency said Jan. 24 on its earthobservatory.nasa.gov website. The volcanic cloud extended to cover all the country's roughly 170 islands, it added.
Cardinal Czerny said the people there welcomed "with joy and gratitude" Pope Francis' appeal Jan. 19 for prayers.
The cardinal said, "prayer seeks to reduce the distance (between people) and overcome the isolation."
Local and regional Caritas organizations immediately swung into action and have been providing emergency supplies, such as water, food, clothing and blankets, he said.
"We turn to God, creator of the heavens and earth, so that he may raise these brothers and sisters from dejection and discouragement," and that "our prayers may overcome all distances, showing our belonging to the one family of God," he said.