MANILA, Philippines – Pope Francis braved an approaching tropical storm to travel to the far eastern Philippines to comfort survivors of the deadly Typhoon Haiyan. He was so emotionally undone by their loss that he barely found the words to offer solace, and then had to cut the trip short because of the dangerous weather that also threatened his culminating Mass on Sunday.
Before he left the typhoon-wracked city of Tacloban, though, a soaking wet Francis brought many in the crowd to tears as he ached at their suffering and recounted how in the days after the Nov. 8, 2013, storm he decided that he simply had to come in person to offer his comfort.
"I wanted to come to be with you," he told a rain-soaked crowd during Mass on a muddy airport field. "It's a bit late, I have to say, but I am here."
Francis was to offer up his final Mass in the Philippines in honor of the dead: a massive gathering in Manila's Rizal Park that was expected to draw several million people. Early Sunday, a steady stream of people began heading toward the park on foot from across the capital, carrying a day's worth of provisions, while others spent the night camped outside the park waiting for the gates to open.
Haiyan slammed the areas around Tacloban with a storm surge two stories high and some of the strongest winds ever measured in a tropical cyclone: 235 kilometers (147 miles) per hour, as clocked by U.S. satellites. It leveled entire villages, left more than 7,300 people dead or missing, and displaced more than 4 million people in one of the country's poorest regions.
"Pope Francis cannot give us houses and jobs, but he can send our prayers to God," said Tacloban resident Ernesto Hengzon, 62. "I'm praying for good health and for my children, too. I am old and sickly. I'm praying that God will stop these big storms. We cannot take any more of it. We have barely recovered. Many people are still down there."
Francis joined Haiyan's victims in solidarity, donning the same cheap, plastic yellow rain poncho over his vestments that Mass-goers were given to guard them against the latest storm to batter their island.
It didn't offer much protection. Francis insisted on traveling around Tacloban in his exposed, open-sided popemobile, and he and his aides were so drenched by the time they boarded the earlier-than-expected flight back to Manila that trip organizers begged the flight crew to cut the air conditioning lest they catch cold.
The pope cut his visit to Tacloban short because of Tropical Storm Mekkhala, which made landfall on nearby Samar Island two hours after he left with winds of 100-130 kilometers (60-80 miles) per hour, the weather bureau said. The same weather system threatened to drown out Francis' closing Mass on Sunday in Manila that had been expected to draw record crowds.
Wind gusts in Tacloban were so strong that they knocked one of the large loudspeakers mounted for the Mass off its platform, hitting and killing a church volunteer, local media reports said. Police confirmed the 27-year-old woman's death, but didn't say how the loudspeaker fell.
Francis was informed of the death and asked his aides to investigate how he might share in the family's grief, said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
While Francis' jam-packed, eight-hour Tacloban itinerary was cut in half, he refused to cut anything out. So after an abbreviated, emotional Mass he went to have a 15-minute lunch with 30 survivors of the typhoon and hear firsthand of their losses.
"I'll never forget the face of the Holy Father listening to each one," Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle told reporters afterward, breaking down in tears himself. Learning of lost parents, husbands, sons and daughters, Francis was almost paralyzed by their suffering, he said.
"You could see the Holy Father just shaking his head, shaking his head and at some moments saying, `Oh, oh!' He was suffering," Tagle said.
"When I asked him, `Do you want to say a few words?' he said: `What can we say?' ... I thought he would say the central message of his homily, but before these 30 persons he himself was reduced to silence: The communion and solidarity that happens in silence."
During Mass, a clearly moved Francis ditched his prepared texts and spoke off the cuff in his native Spanish -- something he does when he wants to speak from the heart. And there again, he was rendered practically speechless.
"So many of you have lost everything," Francis told them. "I don't know what to say to you, but the Lord does know what to say to you. Some of you lost part of your families. All I can do is keep silent. And I walk with you all with my silent heart."
At the same time, though, there were some light moments. Francis clearly relished getting close to ordinary people and seemed to even get a thrill out of the adventure of escaping a storm's wrath just in the nick of time. For a man confined to the walled-in Vatican City in a part of the world where typhoons are unknown, Saturday's storm was a first.
Francis also insisted that a cathedral full of priests and nuns sing "Happy Birthday" to his No. 2, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who turned 60 on Saturday.
And Imelda Marcos showed up at Mass, wearing the same yellow poncho as the ordinary folk. The Tacloban native, widow of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos and known for her extravagant shopping sprees during her husband's 20-year rule, said Filipinos would surely take heed of Francis' pro-poor advocacy.
"They're a very loving people," she told The Associated Press.
A police official estimated the crowd at 150,000 before the pope's arrival and said tens of thousands more were lined up outside the airport area. Lombardi put the total figure at 300,000.
Francis was informed Friday night that his plane's pilots were concerned about the weather and wanted to leave Tacloban earlier than expected, Lombardi said. Francis readily agreed to cut the visit short, but said cancelling it was out of the question.
During the flight from Manila, the trip organizers were in contact with local authorities on the ground who were growing increasingly concerned about the rain and wind and suggested moving the Mass indoors, with TV screens beaming the proceedings to the crowds outside.
"Absolutely no, it is impossible!" Lombardi quoted Francis as saying. "Where are the people? The people are on the ground, they're out. We have to be with them, and celebrate with them."
The cathedral, though, groaned when Francis told them he'd have to cut his visit short.
After a quick exchange of gifts, in which Francis received a wood image of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception made from the debris from the typhoon-damaged church, his motorcade sped off to Tacloban's airport.
Shortly after the pope's plane took off, a private jet carrying 16 people, including several Cabinet members in town for the pope's visit, was hit by strong crosswinds and swerved off the runway while taxiing to take off, leaving it stuck in the muddy ground, the Civil Aviation Authority said. No one was hurt. Spokesman Eric Apolonio said earlier reports that the plane blew its front tires were being investigated.