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Photo of the week: Filipino priest blesses mass graves a year after typhoon

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A year after typhoon, Filipinos look forward to Pope Francis’ visit

Catholic News Service

PALO, Philippines — One year after one of the most powerful tropical cyclones ever recorded crashed across the central Philippines, church leaders in some of the worst-hit parts looked to Pope Francis’ brief January visit to Leyte Island with hope, and slight trepidation.

A Catholic priest sprinkles holy water on the crosses at a mass gravesite for victims of Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, Philippines, Nov. 8. Many Filipinos continue to struggle with the loss of family members, homes and jobs a year after the storm ravaged the central Philippines Nov. 8, 2013. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)
A Catholic priest sprinkles holy water on the crosses at a mass gravesite for victims of Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, Philippines, Nov. 8. Many Filipinos continue to struggle with the loss of family members, homes and jobs a year after the storm ravaged the central Philippines Nov. 8, 2013. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

Standing near the mass burial site bordered with brand new slate grave markers, at the Palo Archdiocese’s Cathedral of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, Msgr. Rex Ramirez said he was personally excited that Pope Francis would be coming.

But he also compared the scale of the pending visit to that of Typhoon Haiyan, or Yolanda, as it was known locally. The storm bore 195-mph winds and kicked up tsunami-sized storm surges, leaving 7,300 dead or missing.

“We’re just barely beginning to understand how big the (papal visit) is for us,” said Msgr. Ramirez, vicar general of the Palo Archdiocese. “When we begin to see, ‘Oh we still lack this thing. We still need to do this thing. We still need to prepare such things.’ I say, this is a big event, maybe bigger than Yolanda.”

A year after the storm, Palo cathedral’s interior is still a latticework of scaffolding as its roof is replaced. Its main entrance remains closed, blocked off by construction materials, while other churches on the main road that connects Palo to other towns are still shells under construction.

Apart from the churches, residents continue to rebuild their lives after Haiyan ravaged 1.1 million homes and left millions more jobless. Tent homes still dot many areas.

Palo, population 63,000, is 95 percent Catholic and is part of Leyte province, on the impoverished eastern edge of the country. Msgr. Ramirez told Catholic News Service he could not imagine 1 million people descending on the town to try to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis. But he also said “the pope’s coming is really for the victims of the catastrophe.”

Msgr. Ramirez, a member of the committee managing the visit, said the outdoor papal Mass would likely to be held on the grounds of the airport in nearby Tacloban City.

Tacloban, about two miles north of Palo, bore the brunt of the casualties from the storm. It is the most urbanized area of Leyte and can handle more than a million people who go there for work every day.

Officials at Santo Nino Church, in the heart of Tacloban, are also involved in the preparations.

Amid the clang of heavy equipment being used to repair the church, Father Isagani Petilos told CNS: “It’s really tough. He (Pope Francis) will be staying here for six hours only, but the preparation is enormous. But foremost of all, we are very grateful to him for coming over.”

However, Father Petilos said church leaders are telling congregations not to expect too much in terms of a material encounter with the pope. They are emphasizing the spiritual aspect of his visit.

“I mean, nobody would ever think that the pope in Rome would come and step his foot on the Island of Leyte,” said Father Petilos. “But maybe, this is the blessing also, that God would like to impart (to) us, to strengthen our people’s faith and then our resilient spirits to reclaim once again our normal lives. He would, I believe touch many hearts, once he comes over.”

Msgr. Ramirez pointed out that the pope is passing through some very poor parts of Leyte, and church officials worried his tight schedule might be delayed should he decide to stop along the drive from Tacloban to Palo to reach out to the hordes of people that they expect will be lining the main road.

“We know that this is a once-in-a-lifetime event. For us it’s probably the event of the century. So we’re excited, fearful too. It’s a good thing that we have hope in the Lord,” said Msgr. Ramirez.

Pope Francis will be in the Philippines Jan. 15-19, staying mainly in Manila.

— By Simone Orendain