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As church and non-governmental agencies scrambled to bring relief to the Philippines following one of the worst disasters ever to strike the region, Pope Francis led worshippers in St Peter's Square last Sunday in silent prayer for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan. Initial estimates placed the death toll at 10,000, with 670,000 homeless and some 11 million people in need of aid, following the devastation wreaked by the typhoon on Friday last week. Six central Philippines islands were laid waste and a number of cities reduced to rubble. “I wish to express my closeness to the people of the Philippines and of that region,” the Pope told pilgrims after the weekly Angelus. “Unfortunately, there are many victims and the damage is enormous.”
In a message on Twitter Pope Francis urged his more than 10 million followers to join him in prayer and the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, said he had sent a telegram to President Aquino to express his “heartfelt solidarity”.
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, in a letter to his priests in the Archdiocese of Manila on Sunday, asked for a special prayer prepared for the victims of the Typhoon Yolanda, as it is called in the Philippines, to be said at every Mass and also for a special collection to be taken for the next two weeks. He concluded: “Through our prayers and effective solidarity, the faith will rise stronger in the midst of ruins. Our Blessed Mother is watching over us. The God who is love is near us.”
The President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, Archbishop Jose Palma of Cebu declared a national novena of prayer and charity from 11 to 19 November for victims of the typhoon. “No calamity or natural devastation can quench the fire of our hope,” said Archbishop Palma.
Mgr Pedro Quitorio III, media director of the Philippines Bishops’ Conference, said the funds raised during the novena will be channelled to the crisis region through Caritas Philippines. The region where the typhoon hit is home to several dioceses, of which Borongan and Palo were hardest hit.
In Borongan, where the typhoon first made landfall, a Unesco heritage church was razed and about 85 to 95 per cent of the homes in the parish were also destroyed, he said. “In Borongan, we have no concrete reports because all communication lines are down and all power lines are down, and we could not get through to get the exact situation,” he said.
In Palo, in which the city of Tacloban is situated, up to 10,000 people were initially estimated to have been killed. Mgr Quitorio III confirmed that much church infrastructure had been lost, including the cathedral of Palo and the important shrine of Santo Niño. But the priority was rebuilding the lives of the people, he said. Mgr Quitorio III said clergy and religious could be sent to minister to the spiritual needs of people, but “right now, the plan is raising funds and meeting the immediate needs, which are food, water and medicine”.
“In the city of Tacloban, it is anarchy,” he warned. “People are looting the area, the stores, because they are looking for food. There is no law and order right now. This is our first concern. The Government has not been able to contain the ‘lawlessness’. We hope this can be contained as soon as possible, so that all relief operations will go as needed.”
Eye witness reports from those who experienced the typhoon were shockingly vivid. “It battered us for hours, as if grinding everything to the ground,” Filipino priest Fr Edione Febrero told the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
ACN on Tuesday sent €100,000 for food, shelter and medicines to the Philippines Bishops’ Conference, for the bishops to allocate to the areas of greatest need.
The Bishops’ Conference has in turn been in contact with Filipino chaplains in Europe to give them the addresses of centres to which supplies can be sent.
Some 80 per cent of Filipinos are Catholic, 10 per cent are Evangelical, and the Churches will play a vital role in relief efforts.