Last week, I got the chance to visit Tacloban again. My first was during the phenomenal visit of Pope Francis. This second is courtesy of an invitation from their seminary to facilitate the annual spiritual retreat of their seminarians. It was not difficult for me to book this engagement. Truth be told, that my first visit to the city made me wish that I must go back again. God is so providential, no less.

My flight from Manila to Tacloban already held my attention. It was fully-booked. Upon reaching the known city, while waiting for my luggage at the arrival area, another aircraft touched down. It was fully-booked as well. Curiosity made me ask one local who had just arrived with me.  “Ganito po ba lagi rito? Maraming pasahero?”I asked. “Hindi naman po ata. As for me, I went home today because I want to remember what had happened four years ago.  We want to remember Yolanda.” I was stunned.  “To remember a tragedy? The most catastrophic Haiyan?” I interrogated myself in disbelief.

On second thought, this was my ulterior motive too in accepting the invitation of their seminary- I have longed to see again Tacloban. I desired to remember as well.

Without falling into exaggeration, I have always said that the visit of Pope Francis in Tacloban was an experience for me as closest to heaven. I had a glimpse of that longed-for kingdom. First, the anticipation of the coming of the Holy Father was tremendous as it was magnanimous. Due to stormy weather then, doubts lingered whether he could still make it. All told, Pope Francis braved and risked his life to be with the people. “I am here to be with you- a little bit late, but I’m here.” Second, there was only one clothing for everybody there. I brought vestments with me but in the end, there could only be one garment for all. Even the Holy Father donned the raincoat. This is picturesque of what will be in the kingdom – all are equal as children of one Father. And lastly, from waiting time up to the dispersal of people after the Holy Mass, I had not yet taken any for food. But I did not hunger. Call it adrenaline or the like, but matter-of-factly in heaven we will no longer be in need of food or anything. The Provider is already with us. Hunger will indeed be just a history. If this is not heaven-experience, then what is?

The day after was Sunday. I had the chance to preside over the Mass in one of the parishes. I also gave the homily. I was struck at the response of the congregation when I mentioned, “I have been seeing posters and posts on social media saying “Bangon Tacloban”.  But when I saw you for days now and as I have been looking around your city, parang hindi na ata Bangon Tacloban, for me it is already BAGONG Tacloban!”  I was utterly surprised that the people thundered in applause with the BAGONG TACLOBAN. Some were in fact in tears clapping and clasping their hands. Then and there I got a clearer sense not only of their struggles but also of their unwavering hope over and above.

This second visit is with significant twists. It has been four years since Yolanda. This time the slogan is “Resilient”. This word welcomes everyone in the airport courtesy of tarpaulins of the local politicians. True enough, resiliency augurs well at the hearts of Taclobanons. I saw it. I learned about it through their stories.

One priest-colleague spiritedly told me, “We have bigger churches here now.” Then quite mischievously, he added, “Thanks to Yolanda!” While it was in a jest, it holds truth-water just the same. I have encountered several locals whose stories would also end with this kind of enigmatic joke. A nun would also tell me, “Our faith in God is typhoon-proof. It is stronger than the strongest storm.” One seminarian shared to me how God’s hands worked mysteriously for them. That time they were transported to a place far away from the city days before Yolanda. They complained to their priest-mentors why they had to go far out of town for an activity. It was time-consuming to travel, not to mention costly. Then while they were that far and out of the city, Yolanda devastated the city. “The hand of God has saved us,” the seminarian exclaimed.

Yet again, I was able to talk to an elderly. He practically lost everything that time, properties and loved ones. He related to me, “Una, nawala ang bubong ng bahay. Tapos, nawala ang buong bahay. Hanggang sa nawala na rin ang mga mahal ko sa buhay.” He was trembling as he was sharing the ordeal. Then tears profusely rolled down his cheeks. After sobs, he told me, “But I want to remember. After four years, I want to remember God. I want to hold on to Him. He is my hope.”

While the intent of my trip was to facilitate the spiritual retreat of the seminarians, it turned out that I was the recipient of a spiritual uplift meant of sorts from the Taclobanons themselves. I was supposed to give inspiration to students, yet their Yolanda stories are more than enough for my soul to be uplifted and nourished. True, tragedies do happen and storms flood our life, but even the worst things that happen will be put to good use if we entrust them to the creative hands of our Lord. Indeed, God could write straight with crooked lines. Hence, Yolanda will always be remembered. Tacloban will always be a place to revisit, even inwardly.

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