Typhoon-devastated Visaya Islands are getting ready to welcome the Pope
Cebu (AsiaNews) - If you want to get inside the office of Fr Socrates Saldua, director of Caritas Cebu, you have to negotiate a path around the many bags of rice, water bottles and cookie boxes that are piled up in the foyer of the organisation's headquarters. The building itself is located in the heart of the old town, a short walk from the historic Basilica del Santo Nino.
"I have no other space for the aid material. Here in the Visayas (Central Philippines), we have had one calamity after the other," he said. The last stuff that has come in is for people hit by a typhoon just a week before my visit (on 15 December 2014).
Fr Socrates Saldua spent 30 years training seminarians and sending new priests to Archdiocese of Cebu, the country's second largest city and the cradle of Christianity in the Philippines. Last year, on Valentine's Day, the new bishop, Mgr José Palma, put him in charge of Cebu Caritas Inc., which had been founded in the early seventies.
"That was fine by me," he said. "When I was in the seminary I set up the Cebu Manna Ministry, a kind of NGO involved in educational and social development activities that saw the participation of seminarians. In 15 years, we also helped 50 college students graduate."
The Verbite nun who accompanied me told me that "Fr Soc's Mass in the cathedral is very popular, because his homily is a concentrate of jokes and allusions." I noticed this as soon as we started talking about the upcoming papal visit to the Philippines.
Don't get me wrong. There is nothing irreverent about [what he says]. However, the seven or eight hours the pope will spend in Leyte (and only in Leyte in the Visayas) next Friday are for him just a pit stop out of the four-day visit to the country.
In fact, Fr Socrates wants to know why the pope is spending three of his four-day visit in Manila, when he was supposed to come to the Philippines first and foremost for the victims of super typhoon Yolanda (8 November 2013) and the many other disasters that regularly hit the Visayas.
This aside, the Caritas director explained that he was disappointed because "the heart of the problem is here. The pope's presence would boost our people's faith, would bring the Church closer [to them], and would be a sign of recognition to all those who acted generously and spontaneously when emergencies broke out."
On 9 November 2013, seven kilometres of the road going north was jammed after Yolanda made landfall. "No one had told them to act. They came of their own accord to bring aid to the affected populations," Fr Saldua said.
The day after we met the Caritas director, we headed in the early morning to the northern tip of Cebu Island, a three-hour drive. To get to the small island of Bantayan, we had another hour and a half by boat.
After we docked at Santa Fe, we proceeded towards Bantayan, the main town in this island of some almost 150,000 people. Here and there, some houses are still abandoned, without a roof. Uprooted or broken trees still dot the scenery, including some coconut trees. In the town, work is still underway to repair the roof of town hall.
The Divine Word Missionaries have rebuilt a school and provided many families a new home and the means to work.
In Cebu Province, Bantayan Island was the most affected by the typhoon. Although "only" ten people died in the natural disaster, the event was still devastating. In addition to housing, the island suffered huge economic losses: fish farms saw their ponds and cages (especially shellfish) wiped out; plants that dried and processed fish were destroyed; a poultry industry that produced a million eggs a month came to its knees.
Yet, what is most striking in the Visayas is the reconstruction work. That is even truer for the level of generosity and solidarity shown by individuals, families, groups, religious congregations, government organisations and others.
"Who knows? Maybe to share his time more equally between Manila and Visayas, the pope will come to Bantayan by helicopter," I jokingly told Fr Alamillo. "If that happened, we would ready and very happy," the Father replied.
The island is small but is more important than its size would suggest. The parish church dates back to 1580 when it was founded by Augustinian monks - the first church in the islands of Cebu, Samar and Leyte.
The Saints Peter and Paul Parish Church, which lost its roof to Yolanda, was built in 1863, in perfect Spanish style.
The Bantayan monuments testify to the attacks and destruction caused by Muslim pirates from southern Sulu in 1628 and in 1711. The name Bantayan itself dates back to that time and means 'be alert' in the local Visaya language.
In addition to the authorities, Pope Francis will meet young people, families and men and women religious in Manila.
Behind the scene, many in Cebu wonder why, "For once, this could not be done in the Visayas". Yet, this might happen in January 2016 when the city hosts the International Eucharistic Congress or in 2021 when the Philippines will mark 500 years of evangelisation.
* Missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions