‘Faith stronger than storm’
TACLOBAN CITY—A woman stood in front of the altar at Santo Niño Parish Church here on Sunday, unmindful of the rain falling on her from the damaged ceiling of the century-old church that had its roof ripped off by Supertyphoon “Yolanda” on Nov. 8.
Next to her was another woman holding a red umbrella. A few steps away was a sobbing middle-aged man.
Nine days after Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) left the city in ruins, survivors of one of the strongest storms on record turned to their faith as they tried to make sense of the tragedy that had befallen them.
“My faith is stronger than Yolanda. I didn’t fear Yolanda. She should fear my God,” Anita Carillo told the Inquirer after the Mass.
“Even the rains cannot stop me from thanking the Lord for saving me and my family. He is truly a caring and loving God,” she said, wiping her face dry with a white veil.
Others, like Marilyn Refugio of Sta. Rita town in Samar, dropped by the church to seek Divine Intervention in the search for her 67-year-old mother, one of the more than 12,000 people reported missing after Yolanda swept across the central Philippines.
“I know God will lead me to my mother. He is our only hope,” Refugio, 40, said, her voice breaking.
Rosario Capidos, who attended an earlier Mass celebrated by Monsignor Alex Opiñano, said she went to church to reaffirm her faith and ask for courage in facing the tragedy that had befallen hundreds of thousands of people in the region.
“We’re now homeless. But I’m very thankful I was able to save the two most important people in my life, my grandsons,” she said.
Capidos and many others wept as they sang “The Lord’s Prayer.”
In his homily, Opiñano reminded the typhoon survivors to keep their faith in God and to continue working together.
“Just hold on to Him. It’s our strong faith in Him that will save us from this tragedy. We should draw our strength from him,” he said. “As the song goes, there’s got to be a morning after.”
In Guiuan town, Eastern Samar, grieving survivors of Yolanda also gathered in shattered churches on Sunday, listening to soothing sermons, asking questions of God and feeling a ray of hope.
Nine days after some of the strongest winds ever recorded and tsunami-like waves destroyed dozens of coastal towns and killed thousands of people, the services offered a moment to escape the grinding battle to survive in the wastelands.
Aid has been slow reaching the millions of affected people, but an enormous international relief operation picked up momentum over the weekend, bringing food, water and medical supplies and airlifting basic necessities to isolated communities.
About 300 people in Guiuan, the first town to be hit by Yolanda, attended Sunday Mass in the courtyard of the ruined 400-year-old Immaculate Conception church.
“I wish to thank the Lord. We asked for his help for all the people who survived this typhoon to be able to eat and continue a life that is hopefully more blissful,” Belen Curila, an elegantly dressed 71-year-old, told Agence France-Presse.
“The Lord has strengthened our faith and made us stronger in order for us to survive and start off all over again,” she said.
Delivering the homily, Fr. Arturo Cablao commended the community’s strength of spirit, as parishioners—some of them silently weeping—stood among twisted roofing sheets, glass shards and mud.
About 80 percent of the Philippines’ 94 million people are Catholic, a legacy of Spanish colonial rule, and their steadfast faith was on display throughout the central islands that were devastated by Yolanda.
In Tacloban, the capital of Leyte that was one of the hardest-hit cities, hundreds of devotees sat on flood-soaked pews at the 124-year-old Santo Niño Parish Church.
Violeta Simbulan, 63, said the priest’s sermon promising that God would always be there offered her comfort while trying to cope with losing two cousins and an aunt in the disaster.
“Yes, I was reassured. As long as I have faith and constantly pray to God,” Simbulan said.
“Despite what happened, we still believe in God,” said the Rev. Amadeo Alvero, who oversaw worship at the peach-colored church on Sunday. “The church may have been destroyed, but our faith is intact, as believers, as a people of God, our faith has not been destroyed.”
The sun shone for the first service, but by the second, rain was falling through a gaping hole crisscrossed by wooden beams in the roof of the downtown church and landmark. Its windows were blown out, and winds now snap at a silver cross on top of its steeple, which hangs upside down.
It was one of dozens of churches across the Visayas that were attended by thousands, many homeless and grieving. Some came to give thanks for surviving, others to pray for the souls of the departed.
“Coming to Mass gives people hope that things will eventually get better,” said churchgoer Marino Caintic.
In typhoon-wracked Roxas City, Capiz province, residents forced to live in makeshift tents after losing their homes also turned to faith in search of solace amid the devastation.
“Yes, there are a lot who came in today than usual,” Fr. Michael Vasquez said after saying Mass at the Immaculate Conception Metropolitan Cathedral in the city.
“After all, it’s to God we all turn,” he said.
Roxas was one of the worst-hit areas in Capiz, where Yolanda destroyed 98,438 houses, displacing 130,368 people.
The city, however, suffered fewer deaths, with only 6 people reported killed, according to the provincial disaster council.
“They learned their lesson … to save their lives rather than their material possession,” Vasquez said.
A 25-year-old woman who lost her home in the coastal village of Baybay came to Mass carrying her two-month-old son, admitting it was her first time to go to church in several months.
“I prayed to God to help us,” she said.
Jun Anomis, 19, who sells cigarettes and candies outside the cathedral, said the storm leveled his family’s house.
Used tarpaulin found among storm debris now serves as shelter for the family, but Anomis said they were grateful to be alive.
In his homily, Vasquez exhorted the congregants to keep their faith and not to lose hope.
Test of faith
Although many devotees in the Philippines were seeking comfort in God on Sunday, for some the scale of the disaster and personal tragedy were proving a severe test of their faith.
Asked why would God allow a storm so powerful and so deadly to obliterate the region, claiming the lives of so many innocents and causing immense suffering, Alvero used an argument familiar to followers of the Abrahamic faiths.
“We are being tested by God, to see how strong our faith is, to see if our faith is true,” he said. “He wants to know that we have faith in him in good times, as well as in bad.”
Fr. Edwin Bacaltos, the parish president at Redemptorist Church in Tacloban, had been asked the same question by many parishioners.
“I didn’t give them any theological answer. I just listened and kept quiet. It’s not the time to rationalize,” he said.
Bacaltos said he also had struggled, breaking down while trying to say Mass on the first Sunday after the disaster.
“I had difficulty. I saw so many people killed. They were just there,” he said, pointing to bodies that had been strewn along the nearby seaside.
“But this is not God’s punishment. I have told them that God still loves us. Because God is a compassionate God. He will not abandon us.”—With reports from AP and AFP
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