TACLOBAN CITY – “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. I’m here to be with you, a little bit late I have to say… but I’m here. 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 lost part of your families, all I can do is keep silence, and I walk with you all with my silent heart,” said Pope Francis during his homily during the Papal Mass in DZR Airport here on January 17, moving the pilgrims into tears.
Over 75,600 Catholic faithful endured the rain and the cold as their utmost sacrifice, just to meet in flesh His Holiness Pope Francisco, and attend to the Papal Mass. They came from the 78 parishes of Leyte, and the other Dioceses in the region and even Mindanao. They started arriving at the venue on January 15 yet, and stayed out in the open airfield, which was wet and cold brought by a tropical storm that was threatening to hit Tacloban.
The storm eventually escalated into a typhoon by January 17, the Pope’s visit, but the Pope bravely flew in, ignoring warnings not to.
“Ganina ra mi ngari, hinay jud kaayo ang iswag sa linya,” said Fe Mantua, 73, from Maasin, Leyte. Some of the pilgrims, especially those from far-off places, came in as early as January 15, like Neneth Laudiana from Bohol. “Diri na mi natulog,” she said.
The pilgrims were accommodated in 127 quadrants, according to their respective parishes. On January 16 in the evening, the night before the Pope’s arrival, there was a mass officiated by Archbishop John Du. It was followed by a vigil and praying of the rosary.
From midnight on, intermittent rains kept the pilgrims from sleeping. Some of them who were designated in the back-most part complained about the muddy ground they were in. “Di mi palakwon sa Police ‘nya mag-unsa man mi didto nga mura nag aad sa baboy kay lapok kaayo,” complained Dorothy Pastor, a pilgrim from Naval, Leyte.
The registration continued until January 17 in the morning, as more pilgrims arrived. The rain, however, never stopped since it started at around 2:00 AM. It was coupled with strong winds, making people shiver from the cold and unable to sleep.
Jiji Apao, a pilgrim from Ormoc, brought her 6-year old daughter to one of the tents after the kid complained of extreme cold. “Nag flow na ang tubig didto sa amo quadrant, nangabasa na mi. Gitugnaw na ang mga bata,” she said.
There were four field hospitals around to accommodate those in need of medical assistance: The Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Center, Red Cross, Perpetual Succor, and Divine Word. There were also standby lifters eyeing around to provide first aid, or pilgrims to field hospitals in case of unmanageable medical emergencies.
There were 9 standby ambulances for worst cases. “Kailangan naming mag duty kasi government hospital kami. Kontento na kaming marinig man lang ang Santo Papa na nagmimisa,” said EVRMC’s Lory Ruetas, team leader of the medical team. Red Cross, likewise, had 120 volunteers who were deployed in every corner.
The Pope’s arrival
At 6:00 AM of January 17, Fr. Amadeo Alvero announced that the Pope was arriving 45 minutes earlier and that it would only be a “simple mass” with no communion, due to the bad weather condition.
Alvero’s announcement roused the pilgrims from their cold stupor, and began chanting “Viva El Papa” together.
In great anticipation, the delegates from Ormoc vicariates formed their bottled water supplies into “POPE FRANCIS LOVE ORMOC”, which caught the attention of media men and pilgrims from other quadrants.
When the pontiff finally arrived at around 9:00 AM, pilgrims expressed euphoria and said they felt blessed to be visited by the Holy Father. “Nawala ang kakapoy, it’s worth it,” said one devotee, while in tears.
Pope Francis was officially welcomed into Tacloban City and Leyte Province by Mayor Alfred Romualdez, Leyte governor Dominic Petilla and Palo mayor Remedios “Matin” Petilla, where the Diocese of Palo is based.
After the Papal Mass, Pope Francis visited Palo, Leyte to have lunch with 30 selected calamity victims-survivors from Yolanda and the Bohol Earthquake.
Meanwhile, well-wishers without pilgrims’ passes lined the streets from the airport to Palo, Leyte to catch a glimpse of the Catholic pontiff.
He also blessed the Vatican-funded Pope Francis Center, but didn’t get the chance to interact with the sick and elderly waiting for him there, to their disappointment.
He also made a quick stop at the Palo Cathedral where religious men and women were waiting. He apologized for cutting his trip short, because his pilot was insistent that he boards the plane back to Manila before 1:00 PM because of the storm.
Typhoon Amang, with the international name Mekkhala, was expected to make landfall in Northern Samar by 3:00 PM and any minute of delay was dangerous.
A long way home
Since no vehicles were allowed to ply the route taken by the Pope to the airport and back while he was still around, pilgrims patiently walked the 5-kilometer distance from the DZR Airport to the rotunda in front of the Coca-Cola plant to get public transport. Because it was raining hard and winds started to develop as the typhoon’s landfall neared, it took the pilgrims around 2 hours to finally reach the rotunda where they could commute already.
Among the sea of people who hiked all the way was Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez. “Nilalakad ko naman talaga ito dito, di nga lang ganito ka bagal,” he remarked.
Mayor Romualdez and his wife, Cristina, were among those who attended the Papal Mass. When asked how he felt about the Pope’s visit, he said he was “touched by the pontiff’s humility and love for the poor.” “His visit surely inspires Taclobanons and Leyteños bounce back, no matter the disasters,” he said.
The horde of people heading downtown encountered the pontiff on its way back to the airport. While Pope Francis was rushing back to the airport to catch his 1:00 PM flight to Manila, an aid worker was also rushed to St. Paul’s Hospital after an scaffolding where the Pope held the Mass fell over her.
Kristel Mae Padasas, 27, was pronounced dead around 2:00 PM due to massive blood loss from a major injury to her head. Kristel worked with the Catholic Relief Service during the Yolanda Humanitarian crisis.