TACLOBAN, Philippines (AFP) - Pope Francis braved heavy rain on Saturday to celebrate an emotional mass with a sea of weeping survivors of a super typhoon in the Philippines that killed thousands, saying their pain silenced his heart.
Pope Francis flew in from the national capital of Manila to Tacloban, one of the cities devastated 14 months ago, to be greeted by hundreds of thousands of people but also another severe tropical storm.
“Long live the pope,” the crowd chanted as he walked off the plane to be immediately buffeted by strong winds and intense rain, which later in the day forced him to cut short his trip to other typhoon-hit areas.
His welcome echoed the rapturous reception that millions gave the pontiff during the first two days of his trip to the Philippines, reinforcing its status as the Catholic Church’s bastion in Asia.
Most of the people in the crowd at Tacloban wore thin yellow plastic ponchos handed out by organisers, and the pope also put one on before walking on to a nearby stage to celebrate mass in heavy rain.
“I would like to tell you something close to my heart,” the pope said as many in the crowd clutched crucifixes and cried. “When I saw in Rome that catastrophe, I felt I had to be here. And on those very days, I decided to come here. I’m here to be with you.”
Super Typhoon Haiyan, the most powerful storm ever recorded on land, left 7,350 people dead or missing in November 2013 as it devastated fishing and farming towns on central islands that were already among the Philippines’ poorest.
Many of those communities are still struggling to recover, with the rubble of destroyed buildings lying in piles and millions of felled coconut trees strewn across idle farmland.
The 78-year-old pontiff acknowledged the enduring pain being experienced by the survivors. “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,” he said. The pope sought to reassure his audience, declaring Jesus would never let them down.
Pope Francis’s five-day visit to the Philippines is partly aimed at helping the Church expand its influence in Asia, but he had repeatedly said giving comfort to typhoon survivors was his top priority.
“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.
Ms Torres, whose house two hours’ drive from Tacloban was wiped out by storm surges, said the pope’s address had given her “renewed hope” even while filling her 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 pope was due to spend the entire day in Tacloban and nearby areas that had also been destroyed by Haiyan. However, Tropical Storm Mekkhala, which was expected to bring much more intense rain to the region in the afternoon, forced the pope to cut short his trip.
In the town of Palo, about 12km from Tacloban, he told a crowd of thousands who had gathered at the main church that he needed to leave quickly to avoid the storm.
“So I apologise to you all. I’m sad about this, truly saddened. Because I had something prepared especially for you,” he said.
His motorcade then raced back to the airport and he departed shortly after 1pm (0500 GMT), four hours earlier than scheduled. However, the main event of the day was the morning mass.
The Philippines endures an average of about 20 major storms a year, many of them deadly. But the unprecedented strength of Haiyan, with winds of 315kmh, was an extreme weather event consistent with man-made climate change, the United Nations’ weather agency and scientists have said.
The Philippines has long been the Church’s stronghold in the region, with Catholics accounting for 80 per cent of the former Spanish colony’s population.
Massive crowds gathered along the pontiff’s motorcade routes during his first two days in the Philippines.
Pope-mania was expected to reach a peak on Sunday, with organisers expecting him to attract as many as six million people for mass at a Manila park.
If as big as expected, the crowd will surpass the previous record for a papal gathering of five million during a mass by John Paul II at the same venue in 1995.