By SR. CAROL KEEHAN, DC
CHA president and chief executive officer
I was privileged to spend the first week of February in the Philippines with a delegation from Catholic Relief Services and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Our goal was to offer support and prayers to the people of the Philippines, as well as to see firsthand the CRS transition from immediate disaster relief following November's devastating Super Typhoon Haiyan to restoration work.
Cargo ships were tossed ashore in Tacloban when a 20-foot storm surge from Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the central Phillipine island of Leyte in November. The storm is one of the strongest ever to make landfall.
The delegation was led by Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, USCCB president, and Archbishop Paul Coakley, CRS board chair. Msgr. Ronny Jenkins, USCCB general secretary, and Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield, USCCB associate general secretary, were part of the delegation, as was CRS President and Chief Executive Carolyn Woo. I was invited as a CRS board member and because of the work CHA and CRS are doing together in Haiti and in other countries in the developing world.
Monday, Feb. 3 — We began our visit with Mass in the chapel at the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, concelebrated by Archbishop Kurtz and Fr. Edu Gariguez, the head of Caritas Philippines. The CRS staff in Manila joined us. We then met with Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Archbishop of Manila, who described how moved and touched the people of the Philippines are by the depth of the worldwide response to this tragedy. He asks that we never view the people who experienced the most destructive force of the storm as victims, but rather that we treat them as partners as we go forward. It was very clear in talking to the archbishop, as well as other bishops throughout the day, that they are very close to the people and their suffering on every level.
We had lunch with Archbishop Giuseppe Pinto, the Papal Nuncio to the Philippines. He spent Christmas in Tacloban, which took a direct hit from the storm, with catastrophic consequences. Archbishop Pinto assured the people there of the Holy Father's love and concern for them. We heard several times later in the week how much his message meant to the people and to disaster relief workers. The delegation met with Archbishop Socrates Villegas, the president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, and Bishop Broderick Pabillo, the chairman of Caritas Philippines, who told us of needs in the storm-devastated areas as well as the needs the church has to repair its churches, schools, rectories and other buildings in order to better serve the people.
Tuesday, Feb. 4 — We flew to Tacloban in Leyte province, an island in the central Philippines where the storm first made landfall. We went on a walking tour in the city's Anibong district. It is impossible to exaggerate the suffering and devastation caused by this typhoon, but it is equally impossible to exaggerate the faith, courage and gratitude of the people for the slightest kindness done to them. In the area we walked, seven large cargo ships had been washed up onto the shore by the storm surge. Even after three months of work at removing debris, crews were still finding an average of 12 bodies a week that have to be immediately buried. People are working very hard to clear rubble, especially those in the cash-for-work programs sponsored by CRS and others to help survivors who lost their means of income in the catastrophic storm.
Unquestionably, even with all the poverty and suffering that we saw, the most difficult thing to respond to were the descriptions by parents of holding their children and having them torn out of their arms by the storm surge and drowned. The incredible pain and loss was written all over their faces. Many of these grieving parents were working to be sure other families with children had shelter and some means of support. The government is trying to give each family a half a bag of rice and some cans of sardines as supplemental food each month. Some families joke that when life returns to normal, they will never again eat a sardine.
Wednesday, Feb. 5 — We were joined by representatives from CAFOD, the Caritas Internationalis of England and Wales; and Trócaire, the Caritas of Ireland; as well as Archbishop Philip Wilson, chair of the Caritas Australia delegation. It was a great opportunity to talk through collaborative disaster response with church aid agency representatives from many countries, and discuss how we could improve on the response.
This larger delegation visited Tanauan, a community near Tacloban. There we learned about an emergency sanitation and hygiene program to prevent disease outbreak in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. The program was put together by a water, sanitation and hygiene coalition known as WASH. Filipino teenagers performed songs and skits they wrote to help everyone learn how to use the WASH kits correctly and the importance of doing so. The teens sang the Filipino national anthem. Given the widespread destruction we'd witnessed, it was an incredibly moving moment.
We visited a large school run by the Sisters of Mercy. They lost their convent, and their school sustained significant damage; but what is usable is still being used, and children are being taught there as well as in tents. School provides a little bit of normalcy in the children's lives. Late that afternoon, we attended a Mass celebrated on an altar covered by a little tarp at the Cathedral of the Archdiocese of Palo. Extensive renovation work had just been completed for the 75th anniversary of the archdiocese when the storm hit with a force that tore off the roof and almost completely destroyed the cathedral.
Thursday, Feb. 6 — About 2,000 local people joined us at a 7 a.m. Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, a Redemptorist parish in Palo, a city about 6 miles south of Tacloban. They came to express their deep appreciation for the help and concern they had been given. One woman, who had had a stroke since the typhoon, shuffled her way to church and in her challenged speech, thanked me for coming. I made sure she got a chance to get Archbishop Kurtz' blessing. CRS staff are living in little individual pup tents on the second floor of the severely damaged archdiocesan chancellery office. We expressed our gratitude and admiration for the work they are doing under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
That afternoon, we visited a village that was supported almost entirely by coconut plantations and a coconut factory. Almost all the houses were either destroyed or damaged severely. The church in the village was ripped apart, only its floor and part of the altar remain. The factory was demolished, and almost every coconut tree was felled. Because it takes seven to 10 years for a coconut tree to mature, it will be very important to find other forms of livelihood for the people of this village.
In cooperation with the engineering staff from CRS, Filipinos were harvesting the coconut wood and repairing houses and building new houses. Their faith and ingenuity was shining through the sorrow.
Friday, Feb. 7 — Back in Manila, the delegates attended Mass with CRS staff and met with U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg and Gloria Steele, mission director for the U.S. Agency for International Development. The ambassador had arrived in the Philippines one week after the typhoon. He is working closely with USAID, CRS and many others, as well as the American military, to assist the people of the Philippines.
It is always so inspiring to see the work of CRS up close. It reminds me of how important prayer and donations are to disaster recovery efforts. Please keep the CRS staff in prayer; and, during the Lenten season, consider contributing to the CRS Rice Bowl campaign to support CRS operations around the world in the name of U.S. Catholics and the bishops. For the first time this year, CRS has a rice bowl app for those who prefer to go high tech for their Lenten sacrifices. The work of CRS is the church at its finest.
CRS Rice Bowl
To learn more about the Catholic Relief Services Lenten faith-in-action program and to download the Rice Bowl app, visit crsricebowl.org. The Rice Bowl campaign encourages Lent observers to pray, fast and give as a way to deepen their relationship with Christ and to help others.
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