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Waiting on Francis, true leadership at typhoon’s ‘ground zero’

For some, love for the pontiff also stems from a void of leadership in the Philippines

Karl Gaspar, Tacloban

Karl Gaspar, Tacloban

Published: January 19, 2015 09:12 AM GMT

Updated: April 22, 2015 01:59 AM GMT

Waiting on Francis, true leadership at typhoon’s ‘ground zero’

The faithful brave rains to take part in a Mass given by Pope Francis in Tacloban on Saturday (Photo by Eloisa Lopez) 

The rains began with a drizzle shortly after 2am, enveloping the growing mass of people slowly making its way, on foot, to Tacloban’s airport. It was the middle of the night, but for many, the chance to catch a fleeting glimpse of Pope Francis was incentive enough.

Along the darkened streets, the pilgrims marched on the muddied sidewalks, while military, ambulance and media vehicles rumbled past on the road.

“This looks like a war zone,” said Sonny, a Redemptorist priest, part of our group of eight who had joined the crowds eager to greet the pope on Saturday.

Security measures were strict; our own group was told to be at the airport before 6am, when all the gates would be closed. And so we left the convent at the crack of dawn, then rode and walked all the way to the airport along with the thousands of pilgrims.

Along the road were policemen from the Bicol and Central Visayas regions and scouts and students from universities in Tacloban, all assigned to form human barricades to control the growing crowd.

It may have looked like a war zone from far above, but spirits soared at ground level, not tempered by an approaching storm. Warm greetings were exchanged even as the rain grew heavier.

By 5:45am, we were in place in the airport grounds, only 30 meters away from a makeshift chapel where Pope Francis was scheduled to say Mass. While we waited, along with a crowd that would grow to an estimated 200,000 people, a giant screen flashed scenes of Pope Francis’s visit to Manila.

Here was a stark contrast. On the screen, we saw those gathered inside the Mall of Asia, all comfortable and dry with flickering lights in their hands, while we were out here in the cold and wet, shivering from the gusts of wind that grew stronger with the rain.

That wind gradually blew away the darkened clouds, ushering in a tentative sunrise. Word spread that the approaching typhoon was worsening.

The screen showed scenes from live TV coverage of the pope about to depart Manila as we looked on: We saw the pope leaving the Papal Nuncio’s residence in Manila; the pope riding in a black automobile to the airport; the pope being greeted somewhere by another eager crowd; the pope walking up a set of stairs before taking his seat in the plane that was to bring him here to Tacloban, where we, the ever-growing crowd, were waiting.

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Then the pope’s plane was spotted on the tarmac. It seemed like he floated down the stairs, the crowd growing wild to see him in the flesh, shouting “Viva El Papa! Papa Francisco!”

Children danced as he passed, and a few lucky boys standing on their traditional karang, or stilts, enjoyed the best vantage points. Pope Francis embraced the sick and the elderly, before finally entering a secluded space where he prepared for Mass.

Here at Typhoon Haiyan’s “ground zero”, another storm — Typhoon Mekkhala (known locally as Amang) — would impact the day. An announcement was made that Mass would be simple and there would be no communion for the public, owing to the inclement weather.

Still, Pope Francis’s homily nonetheless appeared to touch the hearts of the crowd — particularly survivors of Typhoon Haiyan. He said that Jesus suffered on the Cross, that he therefore knew what suffering was about, that he shared the peoples’ suffering and would never abandon them.

Then the pope affirmed what we knew all along: that as soon as Haiyan hit the Visayas, he was glued to the television and that he wanted to immediately come to comfort the survivors. 

Never mind that it took 14 months. He apologized for the delay and the crowd responded with a cheer.

The wind got even stronger after the Sanctus and by the time people sang the "Our Father," there was fear that some of the makeshift shelters would be blown away.

By then we were all soaking wet. I shivered to the bone and wondered how long I could stand the cold. But there was electric energy emanating from the pope’s presence, and we knew we could survive this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The Mass had started at past 9am and was finished just over an hour later. It ended with Archbishop John Du thanking the pope for his visit and closing with these words: “Now you know, Your Holiness, what is the real situation here in our place.”

As rains poured and flowed down our cheeks, tears also gently rolled down toward the wet ground that constituted what Archbishop John Du referred to as Haiyan’s "ground zero".

Minutes after giving the final blessing, Pope Francis rode the “pope-mobile” and blessed the more than 100,000 people who had lined the 15-kilometer stretch of the highway since the crack of dawn.

The "war zone" had now turned into a full pilgrimage site, as the crowds followed the road to the city, feeling energized by the pope’s presence.

What is it about this pope that drew the tens of thousands of Filipinos to the streets and to the sites of the events during his visit? Why would people stand for hours in discomfort just for a glance lasting only a few seconds? And why did the so many here in Tacloban brave a tropical storm with rough winds and pouring rains just to gaze at him from afar?

Indeed, he is charismatic; there is something about the manner in which he smiles that reaches out to people. One senses an authenticity and spirituality in him. He shows compassion to those who need it most. He calls a spade a spade and is not afraid to speak his mind on issues of injustice and corruption.

But there is one other element for us. He is the wise, elderly figure we so desperately need in our families, our communities and our nation. He is the wise and gentle father or grandfather figure that we all long to have in our lives.

In our pre-conquest era, there was reverence for our elders, if they were wise in dealing with ethical and moral questions, kind in relating to their people, merciful to those who defy the tribe’s customary laws, and gentle in dealing with the weak.

Today our social institutions are so lacking of these kinds of elders-leaders. And this is especially so in our political arena.

In the past we had the Rectos, Taňadas, Dioknos, Salongas. We had a president like Ramon Magsaysay, despite his limitations. We had good people in our Supreme Court and leading our communities. But look at the presidential palace now, at Congress, at our courts or our local governments. What caliber of elders and leaders do we have?

Are there media people we can look up to, or public intellectuals from our universities, civil society organizations or NGOs? And what about our leaders across the various faith traditions?

Amid this void, Pope Francis appears. And so we embrace him.

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