After Haiyan

Even priests suffer, but forces of compassion help victims overcome staggering destruction
After Haiyan

A priest stands before the altar of a badly damaged church in the town of Basey, Samar province, after Typhoon Haiyan hit the central Philippines in November 2013. (Photo by Vincent Go)

I am a priest of the Catholic Church, a member of the clergy of the Archdiocese of Palo. It has been two years already after Typhoon Haiyan hit our archdiocese.

As we look back, and as we recall those events and the disaster that almost reduced us to the ground, memories linger. There are lessons learned, there are blessings in disguise gained, and there are challenges that we have to overcome.

The Archdiocese of Palo did suffer as a church. Think of the many structures that were flattened to the ground. Think of the many priests who lost many of their possessions. During those difficult days after Haiyan, the church became a wounded healer in her state of vulnerability.

Many of our structures — churches, rectories, schools, pastoral centers, parish offices, parks — became a haven despite the fallen walls and the absence of roofs. The faithful sought refuge in the buildings, or whatever was left of them. There they hoped for a better day, for better living conditions.

I still remember my first Mass after the storm. I could sense the people's sadness for what had happened, the gratitude for coming out of the calamity alive, the hope that life would get back to normal. 

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After the Mass, the scene was touching. Everyone tried to connect with each other in a huddle, in deep conversation, with hugs, not to mention tears. I mingled with the crowd, listening to their stories, comforting them, even crying with them, for I too, had my story to tell. 

Walking on the streets in the village of San Jose, the area worst hit by Haiyan and where my parents found themselves at the height of the storm, was a pastoral journey. 

I met people on the way, blessed corpses strewn on the sides of the streets, or hidden beneath the debris. 

People approached me to ask for blessings, or just to cry. A priest in their midst was a source of comfort.

A team from the Neocatechumenate, an organization dedicated to the formation of adult Catholics, came all the way from Manila to work with us. It was one offer that I welcomed as I would not have known how to comfort my people. 

Even if I was priest, I needed the consolation and strength. The members of the Neocatechumenate talked with people, listened to their stories, shared the Word of God, and prepared the survivors for the sacrament of penance. 


Wounded people

I heard the villagers' confessions, and it was a source of inspiration — a wounded people confessing their sins to a priest, himself wounded and beaten by the experience.

The Catholic Church is grateful for the role played by private charities and various aid agencies that helped in the people's recovery and healing. These organizations have been a vital source of relief and comfort.  

It was heartwarming and empowering when I heard a CEO of an organization involved in relief and rehabilitation say: "You priests know your community better ... While the government talks about systems and infrastructure problems, your organization is able to provide immediate assistance."

We thank the many dioceses, church agencies, and religious groups who came to offer help. We realized what seasoned veterans they were in responding to the disaster. We were amazed at how these groups literally cut through the rubble to meet immediate needs. I have in mind the workers from the Diocese of Pagadian who rushed all the way from Mindanao with chainsaws to clear roads and erect shelters.

The buzz in the province was when a non-Christian group, the Tzu Chi Foundation, donated millions of pesos to rebuild the Santo Nino Church, a Catholic shrine of the Child Jesus. 

If this wasn't a blessing, what is?

Catholics attend Mass at the destroyed cathedral of the Archdiocese of Palo days after Typhoon Haiyan hit the central Philippines in November 2013. (Photo by Vincent Go)


Blessings in disguise

After two years, what are some of my realizations?

— The church at any level has a key role to play in disaster management. It has its own strengths as well as limitations and these necessitate examination.

— Among the "blessings in disguise" that transpired was the opening of new links, partnerships, and relationships with development institutions.

— It is true, the Catholic Church has long been engaged in social responsibility — e.g., caring for the sick and assisting disaster victims, setting up educational centers, establishing health-care clinics. Yet here in Palo, I noticed how we struggled to strike a balance between liturgical celebrations and educational apostolate on the one hand and the practical components of social justice and meeting the needs of the communities that are vulnerable to disasters on the other. 

— During the height of the Haiyan crisis, we priests also suffered, and it became more difficult to ignore the component of vulnerability.

— Building resilience in communities was one of the greatest contributions that the Archdiocese of Palo brought to development. There were barriers to resilience, definitely, which included our lack of understanding on the complexities of responses to disaster, but we priests, notwithstanding our limitations, inexperience and even incapacities, tried our very best.

— As pastor and a leader of a Christian community, I realize that it is not for me to explain to the people the "Why?" of the disaster. I wouldn't know it myself. Instead, I have been assuring the faithful that as the creator of all things visible and invisible, God will put those puzzle pieces together to give meaning to all these experiences. 

In the midst of devastation there now rise the more powerful forces of the Spirit — sacrifice, generosity, compassion, love. Beyond the staggering destruction we are now seeing challenges, the opportunity for healing and recovery, for renewal and transformation.

Msgr. Ramon Aguilos is a parish priest for Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Tacloban City. He also serves as chairman of the Leyte-Samar Heritage Society and chaplain of the Holy Spirit Chaplaincy in Isabel in Leyte province.

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