TACLOBAN, The Philippines — Braving strong winds and driving rain, Pope Francis traveled to ground zero of a 2013 super-typhoon in the central Philippines that left 6,000 dead and 4.1 million homeless, assuring survivors they haven’t been forgotten.
The pontiff was forced to cut the outing short by almost four hours as a new tropical storm drew steadily closer to this island in the central Philippines, but he nevertheless managed to deliver the message he had come to bring.
“When I saw this catastrophe from Rome, I felt that I had to be here,” Francis told the vast crowd gathered in a muddy field for the pope’s Mass.
“I’m here to be with you,” he said. “I’m a little bit late, to tell the truth, but I’m here.”
Although Francis had a prepared text in English, he dispensed with it in order to speak extemporaneously in Spanish, which is a vintage sign that the pope is truly engaged with the subject. His words brought many in the crowd to tears.
“I don’t know what to say to you,” Francis told the crowd. “So many of you lost members of your family, so I remain silent and walk with you with my silent heart.”
The crowd was estimated variously at several hundred thousand up to, according to the local mayor, 1 million.
Francis arrived just as another typhoon, the first of 2015 in the Western Pacific, was hitting the same region. Tropical Storm Mekkhala made landfall on nearby Samar Island two hours after he left with winds of 100-130 kilometers (60-80 miles) per hour, the weather bureau said. The same weather system threatened to drown out Francis’ closing Mass on Sunday in Manila that had been expected to draw record crowds.
Preparing for the impact of the new storm, organizers dug shallow canals around the stage the pope used for the Mass to allow water to run off in case of flooding, installed several water containment areas, and had six massive pumps on standby.
Wind gusts in Tacloban were so strong that they knocked one of the large loudspeakers mounted for the Mass off its platform, hitting and killing a church volunteer, local media reports said. Police confirmed the 27-year-old woman’s death, but didn’t say how the loudspeaker fell.
Francis was informed of the death and asked his aides to investigate how he might share in the family’s grief, said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
The storm did little to dampen the spirits of throngs of Filipinos who turned out for the event, all clad in disposable yellow ponchos.
Organizers said they had distributed 1 million ponchos in the run-up to the event, anticipating the massive turnout. The pontiff himself wore one of those ponchos throughout the brief visit, the first time anyone could remember seeing a pope clad in a rain slicker.
It didn’t offer much protection. Francis insisted on traveling around Tacloban in his exposed, open-sided popemobile, and he and his aides were so drenched by the time they boarded the earlier-than-expected flight back to Manila that trip organizers begged the flight crew to cut the air conditioning lest they catch cold.
The visit to Tacloban City, on the island of Leyte, was the principal motive for Francis’ outing to the Philippines, in order to bring consolation and support to survivors and families of victims, and also to urge the government, the Church, and the international community to continue the press for recovery.
This was ground zero for the 2013 typhoon, which all told is estimated to have destroyed or damaged 1.1 million homes and affected a total of 16 million people.
Although the national government claims that rebuilding efforts are well advanced, independent assessments are less sanguine. One think tank found last November, for instance, that in one province of the island, only 34 homes had been rebuilt of more than 100,000 destroyed.
In his homily at Saturday’s open-air Mass, Francis told the Filipinos affected by the disaster that God has not forgotten or abandoned them.
“I’ve come to tell you that Jesus is Lord, and he never lets us down,” Francis said.
“Some of you might tell me, ‘Father, I’ve lost all hope, lost my home, my job, I’m ill. I’ve been disappointed by Jesus.’ I respect those feelings, but I see [Jesus] nailed to the cross and from there he doesn’t let us down,” he said.
In a trademark bit of colloquial language, he compared the fear and helplessness that people experience in such a disaster to children who grab their mother’s skirt and scream “Mom!”
“Let’s us grab our mother’s skirt,” he said, referring to the Virgin Mary, “and tell her what we’re feeling.” The pontiff then asked for a moment of silence.
Upon resuming, Francis pointed to the spirit of solidarity with which Filipinos faced the tragedy.
“We also have many brothers that came to help us in this catastrophic moment, and because of this we feel more like brothers and sisters, because we helped each other.”
The pope kept his impromptu homily unusually brief.
“Forgive me if I have nothing else to say, but have the certainty that Jesus never lets you down,” he said.
Later in the Mass, Francis added an ad-lib prayer for the survivors.
“May hope never be robbed from us,” he said.
Francis thanked God, because “in the darkest moment of your life, from the Cross you remembered us and gave us your mother.”
“Thank you, God, for not leaving us orphans,” he said.
The pope managed to keep all the appointments on his itinerary, albeit in abbreviated form, and even managed to add a trademark surprise — this time, a brief stop to greet a family with children, as a sign of his concern for area families that have suffered.
After his abbreviated, emotional Mass, the pope had a 15-minute lunch with 30 survivors of the typhoon and heard firsthand of their losses.
“I’ll never forget the face of the Holy Father listening to each one,” Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle told reporters afterward, breaking down in tears himself. Learning of lost parents, husbands, sons, and daughters, Francis was almost paralyzed by their suffering, he said.
“You could see the Holy Father just shaking his head, shaking his head and at some moments saying, ‘Oh, oh!’ He was suffering,” Tagle said.
“When I asked him, ‘Do you want to say a few words?’ he said: ‘What can we say?’ … I thought he would say the central message of his homily, but before these 30 persons he himself was reduced to silence: The communion and solidarity that happens in silence.”
In his final stop at the local cathedral, Francis told the crowd that “I would like to stay with you, because I have many things I want to tell you.”
When people began loudly begging for the pontiff to stay, he smiled and replied: “I want to ask you two things. Please don’t forget to pray for me, and, please … be quiet!”
While the focus on Saturday was on the roughly 16 million ordinary Filipinos whose lives were affected by the typhoon, there was one celebrity on hand: Imelda Marcos, wife of the country’s former autocratic ruler, Ferdinand Marcos.
The widow Marcos, now in her 80s, comes from Tacloban and was present at the Mass as an ordinary pilgrim. She did not meet Pope Francis, who was likely unaware of her presence.
In comments that Filipinos familiar with the accusations of corruption directed against her and her late husband may find ironic, Marcos told reporters that “the message of the Holy Father is about the poor, and I love the poor.”
“If more people thought like him,” she said, “the country will be more united and able to grow.”
There were some light moments: Francis insisted that a cathedral full of priests and nuns sing “Happy Birthday” to his No. 2, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who turned 60 on Saturday.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.