A Filipino Catholic holds up a crucifix during a Mass said by Pope Francis in Tacloban on Saturday (Photo by Eloisa Lopez)
Pope Francis on Saturday braved a tropical storm and bumpy plane ride from Manila to Tacloban to meet with Typhoon Haiyan survivors and victims of the 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Bohol province.
"I am here to be with you, a little bit late, but I’m here," the pope told an estimated crowd of 300,000 rain-soaked people inside the airport compound and in surrounding streets.
Francis arrived in Tacloban at around 8:50am, about 30 minutes earlier than schedule, to avoid the impending landfall of Typhoon Mekkhala.
Rain, strong winds, and shouts of joy from the crowd greeted the pope when he emerged from the papal plane wearing a thin, yellow plastic raincoat.
However, he wowed the crowd when he asked permission to deliver a homily in Spanish instead of reading a prepared one in English.
"I’d like to tell you something close to my heart," Pope Francis said. "When I saw from Rome the catastrophe, I had to be here, and on those very days I decided to come here.”
"So many of you have lost everything. I don’t know what to say to you," he told a teary-eyed crowd. "All I can do is keep silent and walk with you all with my silent heart.”
The pontiff was forced to cut short his trip to the area because of intense rains and strong winds from Tropical Storm Mekkhala, which was less than 150 kilometers from Tacloban as His Holiness said Mass.
Archbishop John Du of the Archdiocese of Palo expressed his "deep appreciation" for the pope's presence.
"We are on 'ground zero,'" the prelate said of Tacloban, where in November 2013 Super Typhoon Haiyan made land fall with wind speeds of more than 300 kilometers per hour and storm surges triggering waves of over six meters in height. The disaster left at least 7,500 people dead or missing.
"The suffering of our people defied imagination. Yet in the midst of pain and suffering it was our Christian faith the helped us through," said Archbishop Du.
The wind and rain brought about by Typhoon Mekkhala, however, could not dampen the spirit of those in attendance Saturday, some of whom came from far-flung villages.
"Ten hours under the rain, four hours walking, but a lifetime of memories," said Aaron Almadro, who lost his parents during Typhoon Haiyan.
Almadro could not stop crying when he told ucanews.com how thankful he was to Pope Francis "for giving me back my faith".
"In four hours he has demonstrated to us exactly by his words and deeds what faith, hope and charity mean to us as Christians," said Dr Efleda Bautista, convenor of People Surge, an alliance of typhoon victims.
The College Editors Guild of the Philippines, an organization of tertiary student publications, issued a statement commending the pontiff for his "comprehensive advocacy for the poor, not only theological but also to their [the poor’s] basic economic need".
The guild said the pope "is very clear and consistent with his message (that is) the way to a good society is the promotion of social justice".
After saying Mass in Tacloban, the pontiff traveled 13 kilometers on board the popemobile to the town of Palo amid a sea of yellow rain coat-clad residents to have a quick lunch with 30 typhoon survivors.
He also blessed the Pope Francis Center for orphans and the sick on his way to Palo Cathedral where he met briefly with clergy and the religious before going back to Tacloban.
He left Tacloban for Manila about 1pm, four hours ahead of schedule to avoid the approaching typhoon.
Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi told media on board the papal plane to Manila that the pontiff was "happy" because he had a taste of the weather the people experienced during the typhoon.
In a meeting with government officials on Friday, the pontiff said his visit to the Philippines is meant "to express my closeness to our brothers and sisters who endured suffering, loss and devastation".
He expressed admiration for typhoon survivors for their "resilience" amid natural disasters that hit the country almost every year.
On the papal plane from Sri Lanka, Pope Francis told journalists that global change, which he said is "mostly man's fault," can be blamed for the growing number of disasters around the world.
"It is man who continuously slaps down nature. We have, in a sense, lorded it over nature, over Mother Earth. I think man has gone too far," the pontiff said.
He expressed hopes that his upcoming encyclical on the environment will encourage negotiators at a climate change meeting in Paris to make "courageous" decisions to protect God's creation.
"I think we have exploited nature too much," Francis said. He expressed hope that his encyclical on ecology that will be released sometime in June or July will be "read and absorbed" before the next round of climate change negotiations in Paris in November.
The papal plane made the 90-minute flight back to the Philippine capital of Manila safely.