The wind was blowing increasingly strong, the tepid rain was falling steadily, as Pope Francis, wearing a yellow plastic poncho, assured some 300,000 survivors of the worst typhoon in history, that Jesus is always with them in the midst of all their sufferings, he understands what they are undergoing because he too has suffered, and “He never lets us down”.
Tropical storm Amang was brewing as he spoke, the wind was building up and by the end of mass it would force him to take the plane back to Manila four hours earlier than planned.
When he began the mass wearing the yellow plastic poncho over his vestments, he looked out and saw before him this enormous crowd standing in the rain, men and women of all ages, ranging from young children to elderly people. Each one was wearing a yellow plastic poncho like his. Many had come here 24 hours earlier for this awesome occasion.
Pope Francis had prepared a written homily for this solemn occasion, it had been distributed in advance to the journalists travelling with him but he didn’t read one word of it. Instead, profoundly moved by the people huddled in the rain in front of him, and by their immense suffering, he felt the overwhelming, intense inner desire to speak from the heart, to tell them what he felt in the depths of his soul. He began, speaking in English, and then telling them he wanted to speak in Spanish, and would use a Vatican monsignor to translate his words into English. We have learned that whenever Francis says he wants to speak in Spanish, it is because he wants to “speak from the heart”.
Speaking in a strong voice to drown the sound of the rising wind and drawing on the first reading, he told them that in Jesus “we have a high priest who is capable of sympathizing with us in our weaknesses”. He reminded them that “Jesus is like us. Jesus lived like us and is the same as us in every respect, except sin because he was not a sinner. But to be more like us he assumed our condition and our sin.”
“Jesus always goes before us and when we pass an experience, a cross, he passed there before us”, he told them. Then turning to the worst typhoon in history that hit their island on 8 November 2013, he said that “if today we find ourselves here 14 months afterwards, 14 months precisely after the Typhoon Yolanda hit, it is because we have the security of knowing we will not weaken in our faith because Jesus has been here before us. In his Passion he assumed all our pain. Therefore he is capable of understanding us”.
That typhoon, as the archbishop of Palo, John F. Du, recalled in a short speech at the end of mass, came with a strong storm whose surge “caused so much destruction and a massive loss of life.” Water in this area was some 25 feet (7 meters) deep; this was a then a place of fear, suffering and death”. Other sources report that some 10,000 died in that typhoon, and over 4 million were made homeless.
Referring to this tragedy, Pope Francis confided “something very close to my heart” to his hushed audience. He had already announced that his first reason for coming to the Philippines was to comfort the victims of that typhoon. Now he told them, “When I saw from Rome that catastrophe (I felt) I had to be here. And on those very days I decided to come here. I am here to be with you – a little bit late, but I’m here”, he said. They burst into applause.
“I have come to tell you that Jesus is Lord. And he never lets us down”, he told them, drawing more applause.
Then he said, “You might say to me, Father, I was let down because I have lost so many things, my house, my livelihood.” Francis said, “It’s true if you say that and I respect those sentiments. But Jesus is there, nailed to the cross, and from there he does not let us down. He was consecrated as Lord on that throne and there he experienced all the calamities that we experience. Jesus is Lord. And the Lord from the cross is there for you. In everything the same as us. That is why we have a Lord who cries with us and walks with us in the most difficult moments of life.” They clapped again.
Well aware that all these people standing there in the rain before him had suffered in countless ways because of the typhoon, Pope Francis recognized this and said, “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 silence and walk with you all with my silent heart.”
Knowing that even their faith in God had been tested by that unprecedented typhoon, Francis said, “Many of you have asked the Lord – why lord? And to each of you, to your heart, Christ responds with his heart from the cross. I have no more words for you. Let us look to Christ. He is the lord. He understands us because he underwent all the trials that we, that you, have experienced.”
Francis, knowing the great devotion of these survivors to the Mother of Jesus, encouraged them to remain firm in their faith and to turn to her in this great moment of trial, telling them: “ And beside the cross was his Mother. We are like a little child in the moments when we have so much pain and no longer understand anything. All we can do is grab hold of her hand firmly and say ‘Mommy’ - like a child does when it is afraid. It is perhaps the only words we can say in difficult times – ‘Mommy’.”
Francis then told them, “Let us respect a moment of silence together and look to Christ on the cross. He understands us because he endured everything. Let us look to our Mother and, like a little child, let us hold onto her mantle and with a true heart say – “Mother”. In silence, tell your Mother what you feel in your heart.”
At that point Pope Francis stopped talking, and bowed his head in prayer. A great silence descended on the already hushed crowd and, one after another, they too bowed their heads and prayed. Many wept, as they told the Mother of Jesus what they really felt.
Francis broke the silence after two minutes and told them, “Let us know that we have a Mother, Mary, and a great Brother, Jesus. We are not alone. We also have many brothers who in this moment of catastrophe came to help. And we too, because of this, we feel more like brothers and sisters because we helped each other.”
He concluded his homily by telling his rain-swept audience, “This is what comes from my heart. Forgive me if I have no other words to express myself.”
He ended with words of encouragement, telling them: “Please know that Jesus never lets you down. Know that the tenderness of Mary never lets you down. And holding onto her mantle and with the power that cones from Jesus’ love on the cross, let us move forward and walk together as brothers and sisters in the Lord.”
At the end of mass, Archbishop John F.Du, speaking as the pastor of the majority of these people, told the Pope, “our deep appreciation for your presence here can hardly be expressed in words”. He thanked him for coming to what was their “Ground Zero”, and the survivors broke into long applause. “You have come to us with a father’s compassion and loving concern, and thus have brought us to God”, he said. He concluded by telling the Pope, “Your visit strengthens and consoles us; may your humble presence among the poor and among us who have suffered the tragedy of a Super Typhoon ever lead us to the restful waters of God’s mercy and love. We will always be grateful!”
After mass, the Pope got into the jeepney again, wearing his yellow plastic poncho, and drove among the vast crowd, kissing children and blessing them. His presence consoled and comforted them, they consider it “a blessing”, many survivors said.
One of those at the mass was Elisabeth Su, a young mother of two who survived the typhoon but lost some cousins in it, told me “I love Pope Francis” and then, to emphasize her feelings which she found difficult to express in words, she drew a heart on her own heart with her finger, and pointed to heaven. Mother Gemma, 76, the superior and foundress of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, told me she had seen many people cry during the Pope’s homily, and confessed “I too wept!”. She said Pope Francis “with his simplicity” is “a Godsend to the world. We need men like him!”
Once he had left the airstrip, the Pope had to trim his program drastically. He went from there to the home of a very poor fisherman and met the man’s wife and children and spent ten minutes chatting with them. Next he had lunch with 30 survivors of the typhoon, all of whom had lost a family member, and he was greatly moved by their stories, Cardinal Tagle told reporters later that day..
It had been planned originally that the Pope would meet and speak to priests, religious men and women, the families of survivors and seminarians at the cathedral in Palo, a church founded by the Jesuits in 1596, but all he could manage was to drop in for ten minutes, pray with them and explain that he had to cut short his visit on the island because the tropical storm was growing stronger and the pilots had informed him he would have to depart by plane at one o’clock, otherwise he risked not being able to take off. Given the rest of the weekend's program, he had little option but to agree. He did so sadly, but he knew that he had achieved his main goal, which was to come here and to comfort the survivors, and share their sufferings. He considered it an additional blessing that he able to do so amid the brewing storm.