TACLOBAN, PHILIPPINES - Pope Francis traveled Saturday to the far eastern Philippine city of Tacloban to comfort survivors of super-typhoon Haiyan, which devastated the region in November 2013, leaving 7,350 people dead or missing.
The pope, wearing a thin rain poncho, spoke to a crowd of about 150,000 similarly clad people who stood in heavy rain and winds so strong that they knocked over a piece of equipment, which struck and killed a church volunteer.
Francis said that when he watched news coverage of the typhoon from Rome, he immediately decided to visit the Philippines. He acknowledged the suffering that the typhoon had caused and said he could only "walk" among storm victims with a "silent heart."
"So many of you have lost everything. I don't know what to say to you," the pontiff said. "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 with my heart in silence."
Francis announced that he had to end his visit hours early to avoid an approaching tropical storm that was expected to make landfall in the vicinity of his Mass, which many had awaited in downpour conditions for up to 24 hours.
College student Majesty Ocan and her friend said it was well worth the wait.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and we’re so blessed that we get to see him and hear his message and be with him," she said. "Oh, my gosh! I’ve seen his smile!”
Pressed for time by the approaching foul weather, the pope departed for Palo, a nearby town whose main cathedral is the site of a mass grave for Haiyan victims. There the pope had lunch with typhoon survivors, greeted cathedral clergy and blessed the Pope Francis Center for the Poor, after which he spent less time at each successive stop in order to make a 1 p.m. flight back to Manila to beat the storm.
Manila Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle says the pope was glad for the chance to be in a tropical storm.
“He said, ‘This is for me. This is an experience for me, learning something, experiencing something; it’s very pastoral, getting to know what people go through,'" Cardinal Tagle said. "In fact, he was surprised that we in the Philippines get 20 to 22 typhoons [per year].”
Condemns corruption, poverty, terrorism
The pope, who arrived in the Philippines Thursday, said his visit was meant to express his closeness to the people who endured the suffering, loss and devastation caused by Haiyan, which slammed into a region already hobbled by extreme poverty.
On Friday, the pope told President Benigno Aquino and other leaders in Manila to reject the endemic corruption that has plagued the island nation for decades and instead work to end what he called the "scandalous" poverty and social injustices that afflict its people. He later brought up the subjects again while celebrating Mass in Manila's colonial-style cathedral.
The highlight of the pope's trip will be a huge open air Mass on Sunday in Manila, where some 6 million people are expected to attend.
During his flight to Manila from Sri Lanka, Francis spoke to reporters about the recent terrorist attacks in France. He defended freedom of expression as a fundamental human right, but said "you cannot provoke or insult the faith of others."
The pope also said he is convinced global warming is mostly man-made, and that he hopes an upcoming climate change conference in Paris will take a courageous stand to protect the environment. He said man has exploited nature.
The pontiff’s visit to the Philippines, a nation of 80 million Roman Catholics, is the first since Pope John Paul II's in 1995.
Philippine authorities have assembled a security force of nearly 50,000 soldiers and police to protect Francis. The two other popes to visit the Philippines were both targets of assassination attempts.