Church Communion and Evangelisation
A fire that destroys and purifies
Bishop Faustin Ngabu
In 2001, an enormous natural disaster caused by a volcanic eruption destroyed the city of Goma, Zaire and claimed thousands of lives. The local bishop, himself having been seriously ill in hospital, sent the following letter addressed to his own staff, all Christians of the Diocese and all inhabitants of the city. He wanted to try and read the events that were happening in the light of wisdom.
After the catastrophic volcanic eruption that struck our city of Goma, the experience of death that the Lord has granted me to live through during that period has immersed me in the silence of a hospital room. Now that I am recovering and preparing to leave the hospital, I want to share with you some of my feelings regarding the tragedy that has struck our city.
In the silence of the difficulties I was going through and looking for some words of consolation, I came across a text of St. John of the Cross commenting on a sentence from St. Paul:
In Christ “are hid all the treasure of wisdom and knowledge of God’s mystery” (Col 2:3). But one cannot enter or reach them if, as we have said, one does not first pass through and enter the depths of exterior and interior suffering. For one cannot reach in this life what is attainable of these mysteries of Christ without having suffered much, and without having received numerous intellectual and sensible favours from God, and without having undergone much spiritual activity; for all these favours are inferior to the wisdom of the mysteries of Christ in that they serve as preparations for coming to this wisdom. The one that truly desires wisdom, also really desires to enter into the depth of the Cross that is the way of life; however, few enter. All want to enter into the depth of wisdom, into the riches and delights of God, but few desire to enter into the depth of the sufferings and sorrows experienced by the Son of God: one could say that many would want to already arrive at the goal without travelling the road and the means that lead them there.”
This passage taken from the Spiritual Canticle has helped me greatly to accept my own personal trial and that of the eruption in which God has visited our city.
And every day they tell me “Where is your God?”(Psalm 42:4)
The eruption that became a real threat to the city of Goma goes back to 1977. Since then, other eruptions have poured out their lava upon the Virunga park with the consequence that, in spite of the specialists’ warnings of the existing threat of the Nyiragongo volcano, no one believed that the city of Goma could be hit so hard. A flow of lava more that 30 meters wide has destroyed everything for a distance of 8 kilometres virtually dividing the city in two. It is hard to believe. Never has any other event been so hard to accept.
Churches and other places of worship have been reduced to ashes. Schools and youth centres have gone up in smoke; houses destroyed forever. Health centres, infrastructures for development, factories and offices, irreparably collapsed. Markets, stores and small commercial centres that represent survival for many men and women, devastated without pity.
No social group has been spared in the catastrophe that has struck Goma. Parents, young people, politicians, rich as well as poor, the United Nations and social agencies, the religious community, everyone has been affected, shocked by the devastation. What can one say to those who have lost everything? Who can console those who have lost their loved ones?
What can one say to whole populations that have come here to flee the uncertainty of their own country or have come searching for a better life? Whatever else we might say, it is true that Goma was an attraction and a welcoming city to everyone. Who will be able to restore her serenity and her previous appearance? The city has been demolished and disfigured forever. How can one accept such a hard reality and what do we say about the future? Reconstruct the city or transfer it to a more secure place?
All these questions remain without answer inasmuch as the event shocks us and is beyond us. Above all, however, this event poses an essential question of faith.
Where was God when the lava devoured and destroyed everything in its path? Why did he permit such a catastrophe? These questions, requiring an urgent response, pass through our soul whether we want them to or not. As the lava has been devastating and catastrophic to our possessions, so to it has been devastating for our faith.
Who would dare say to God “You have committed an injustice”?(Job 36:23)
What is sure and certain through the eyes of faith is that this eruption, despite its devastation, is a Word of God for the city of Goma as a social body and personally for each of its inhabitants. Above all, however, it is a radical call to conversion.
By means of this eruption, the Lord has stripped us and has left us poorer and more similar to His Son, who had no place to put his head (Matthew 8:20). Consequently, we are freer to follow our Lord stripped and nailed to the cross. God does not only speak through the Scriptures but also through the joyful and undesirable events of each day.
The challenge for us is not to allow our adversary, the devil, to interpret the facts. The devil always is working to gain a hold on us by discouraging us and trying to make us lose faith. Therefore, for a person of faith the first thing to do is to accept this tragedy. Accepting this as part of his will of salvation and sanctification is an assurance for everyone.
What purpose would it serve to rebel or put God on trial? In this regard we are helped by the attitude of Job. After having lost everything, his own possessions, his sheep, his camel, his house and, above all, his children, he responded with the courage of faith and said, “Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb and naked I return. The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. If we accept good from the Lord, should we not also accept what is evil?” ( Job 1-21:2,10). Job had not committed sin and did not attribute to God an unjust thing. God is not the author of evil for the sake of evil. God does not commit injustice.
All that he desires, he does. All that he does is just and good. If the events that God permits are at once so heartrending for everyone, they are only unacceptable to the person who does not have faith. In reality, everything contributes to the good of those who love God (cf Rom 8:28).
“I have believed and therefore I have spoken”(Psalm 16:10)
Usually when faced with a catastrophe of this magnitude talk vanishes. But we cannot be silent. It is necessary to dispel the diverse interpretations that have been offered. For example, some see in this eruption an evil action of ancestors, bad spirits or demons.
Others believe it to be a chastisement from heaven or some manifestation of God’s anger that has spared the good and has stricken the evil. Still others see in this a freak event, or a strong unleashing of the forces of nature. Finally, some see in this eruption the irrevocable will of an indifferent God to whom we must submit with resignation.
For us Christians, however, nothing happens without the Lord permitting it. This eruption reminds us that this world passes away (cf 1 Corinthians 7:31). Nevertheless, this event poses for us also a fundamental question. Why did the Lord strike at the economic heart of our city already so fragile?
Is there not a message about our relentless search for money that tends to become a true cult? Is it not true that the idolatry of money is the cause of our suffering and our true evil: jealousy, avarice, hate, tribalism, divisions, war, injustices, infidelity in matrimony, deceptions and lawsuits? Just think of how many lawsuits among brothers at the land registry and at the council of judges were swallowed up by the lava! How can we not deplore the heartbreak of many frustrated young people who have sold their bodies and their dignity for a few dollars? Prostitution and abortion, have they not become a normal tragedy in our neighbourhoods?
As St. Paul says: “People who long to be rich are a prey to temptation; they get trapped into all sorts of foolish and dangerous ambitions which eventually plunge them into ruin and destruction. The love of money is the root of all evils…” (1 Timothy 6:9-10).
In a certain way, the destruction caused by the volcano has brought us to face the truth, and brought us to see what counts in the eyes of God, what is essential in our attitude before the mystery of life and death and what we believe about eternal life.
Our disbelief hinders us from seeing the end, the direction, the sense of life on earth. We live as if God does not exist, as if death does not exist, as if the last judgment does not exist, as if there is no hope for eternal life. How true is St. James’ observation: “Here is the answer for those of you who talk like this; ‘Come now, you who say “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain”; whereas you do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes’ (James 4:13-14).
This eruption has reawakened us, calling us to lift up our eyes to heaven and seriously seek conversion. In the wake of this event, we can better understand the words of Jesus spoken to the eighteen people who were crushed under the fallen tower of Siloam: “Do you suppose that they were more guilty than all the other people living in Jerusalem? They were not, I tell you. No; but unless you repent you will all perish as they did” (Luke 13:1-5).
To perish in the same way means to perish in sin(John 8:24)
This urgent recall of Jesus is not condemnation but good news, a Gospel. Jesus eagerly wants us to live not as insensitive people but as people who are wise. He wants us to take our personal lives, our family life, our community and our Church of Goma seriously. Today, more than ever, we must be converted and return to the Lord.
As St. Paul says: “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ… forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:8ff).
Those who are familiar with biblical language and the theophanies of the Old Testament, know that fire is a purifying and fearful manifestation of the glory and the holiness of God. Thus, when God manifests himself as a devouring fire, it is primarily to call his elect to sanctity. Fire is also a sign of a visit and judgment of God (cf Dt 7:11). It is from the midst of a fire that God gave the ten words of life to his people (cf Dt 9:10). Fire that is destructive and frightening for humankind symbolises God’s divine anger, jealousy and inflexibility in the face of the sin and hard heartedness of the impious (cf Ex 20:5;34,14;Dt 9:6,15).
In the New Testament fire is a symbol of the infinite love of God for us. “I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already! There is a baptism I must still receive” (Lk 12:49). Jesus himself passed through the fire of his passion and death. He was “salted” with the fire (cf Mk 9:49) of judgment and the Spirit before entering into the glory of the resurrection.
The eruption has become a wake-up call to this very fundamental truth, namely that our life does not belong to us. We pass here on earth as though on a journey. Our homeland is above, in heaven.
Love One Another(John 13:34)
For me this eruption is also a call to charity and fraternal communion as well as to peace. If all of our possessions and loved ones can disappear in an instant, if our own life itself to which we are so attached can end at any moment, if this mystery of life belongs to Another, how can we not be united with Him? How can we not burn with a desire to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him? How can we not put down our arms and stop our wars? How can we not hold back our hatred and our rancour against our enemies? The Lord has made his voice heard in the city of Goma and the whole region of the Great Lakes, calling for a new culture of love and peace to be born.
It gives me joy to see numerous gestures of solidarity coming forth from this catastrophe. I see expressions of hospitality between neighbours, a welcome for brothers and friends beyond ethnic and cultural barriers, the mobilisation of support organisations, humanitarian aid and the mobilisation of the Congolese and Rwandan authorities, the concern of Caritas and the assistance of religious communities.
May all of these contributions receive our gratitude and appreciation! In a special way, I would like to thank the Holy Father for his telegram of encouragement. I also want to thank the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples that has been with us through the visits of Bishop Saraha. May the Holy Father receive assurance of our communion and of our filial affection. I ask those who have lost everything in this eruption to take courage.
Trust the Lord. Trust in his fidelity that will be there to help you as you start life again. Finally, in every situation stay alert because “you do not know the day nor the hour” (Mt 25:13).
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