TACLOBAN CITY—“I am here to be with you. A little bit late, I have to say, but I am here.”
This was what Pope Francis told survivors of Typhoon Yolanda which killed more than 6,000 people and caused the disappearance of more than 1,000 others 14 months ago.
“When I saw from Rome the catastrophe, I felt that I had to be here and on those very days I decided to come here,” the pope said in his native Spanish during the mass he celebrated at the Daniel Z. Romualdez Airport here.
And, as in Manila, about 200,000 people surged from various places in the Eastern Visayas region and lined the streets here to show their gratitude and appreciation for Francis who said in July last year that he was coming to the country precisely to comfort the victims of disasters.
“Father, you might say to me, I was let down because I have lost so many things, my house, my livelihood. It’s true, if you would say that, and I respect those sentiments,” Francis said in his homily, “but Jesus... does not let us down.”
“We have a Lord who is capable of crying with us, capable of walking with us, in the most difficult moments of life,” he told his audience, many of whom were in tears.
“So many of you have lost everything. I don’t know what to say to you. But the Lord does know what to say to you. Some of you have lost part of your families.
“All I can do is keep silent. And I walk with you all with my silent heart. Many of you have asked the Lord, why Lord? And to each of you, to your heart, Christ responds from His heart upon the cross,” the pope said.
The pope and his audience celebrated the mass in yellow raincoats because of a moderate drizzle and a fairly strong wind caused by Typhoon Amang which was nearing the country’s eastern seaboard.
But he still proceeded to adjoining Palo town, the seat of the Archdiocese of Palo, where he was to have a closed-door lunch with 30 families of victims, but he only managed to meet the victims and had to skip lunch because of the coming storm.
The pope was supposed to stay in Leyte until 5 p.m., but he was forced to leave at around 1 p.m. because Typhoon Amang was already expected to hit Borongan City in the neighboring province of Eastern Samar with central winds of 100 kph and gusts of up to 130 kph on Saturday evening.
“So I apologise to you all. I’m sad about this, truly saddened. Because I had something prepared especially for you,” the 78-year-old pontiff told thousands of people at the Palo Cathedral before rushing back to the airport for the 90-minute flight back to Manila.
The pope was apparently unaware that a church volunteer had died after a speaker fell on her after the papal mass and a private jet carrying presidential aides overshot the Romualdez Airport runway altough no one was injured.
After the pope’s departure, Leyte Rep. Ferdinand Martin Romualdez thanked the pontiff for coming to Leyte despite the rain and hoped his “personal touch” in expressing mercy and compassion to the Yolanda survivors will expedite government efforts to rebuild the devastated areas.
“We thank the Pope for this God’s big blessing he extended and shared with us. He comes at a time when we as a nation are going through one of the most trying and difficult times in our history. The prayers he sent to us were immeasurable help for our needs and salvation,” the congressman said.
“So far, this is best relief and reward to all of us here that God’s representative came and visited Tacloban City to comfort and assure us that our Lord is here for us,” Romualdez added.
“We are hoping that the papal visit will expedite the rehabilitation of Yolanda-stricken areas. The country has been at the center of focus of the international community once again,” Romualdez said.
“It is high time for the government to work double time and salvage the survivors from their poor living condition,” Romualdez pointed out.
Romualdez and his cousin Tacloban City Mayor Alfred Romualdez were among the few government officials who joined Palo Archbishop John Du in welcoming the Pope in Tacloban on Saturday.
“The Leyeteños were elated over Pope Francis’ solidarity and compassion for the plight of Yolanda survivors,” the congressman said.
“I can’t explain how I feel. I am filled with gratitude. Never in my life did I think that I’d see a pope,” 68-year-old housewife Virginia Torres told AFP, wiping tears and raindrops from her face after the pontiff left the mass venue.
Torres, whose house two hours’ drive from Tacloban was wiped out by tsunami-like storm surges, said the pope’s address had given her “renewed hope” even while filling her again with pain.
“I was overwhelmed with emotion, especially when he mentioned that he can relate to our suffering... everything that we went through came back.”
The plane carrying the pope took an alternative air route to avoid the winds of Amang and by 2:55 p.m. he was already at the Apostolic Nunciature where thousands have been waiting in vigil.
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