Tacloban: Pope Francis on Saturday celebrated an emotional mass with a sea of weeping survivors of a super typhoon in the Philippines that claimed thousands of lives, saying their pain had silenced his heart.
Francis flew in from the national capital of Manila to Tacloban, one of the cities devastated 14 months ago by tsunami-like waves, to be greeted by hundreds of thousands of people but also another storm.
"Long live the pope," the crowd chanted as he walked off the plane to be immediately buffeted by strong winds and rain.
His welcome echoed the rapturous reception that millions gave the pontiff during the first two days of his trip to the Philippines, reinforcing its status as the Catholic Church`s bastion in Asia.
Most of the people in the crowd at Tacloban wore thin yellow raincoats handed out by organisers, and the pope also put one on before walking on a nearby stage to deliver mass in heavy rain.
"I would like to tell you something close to my heart," the pope said as many in the crowd clutched crucifixes and cried. He had been due to deliver a prepared speech in English but instead delivered impromptu remarks in Spanish.
"When I saw in Rome that catastrophe, I felt I had to be here. And on those very days, I decided to come here. I`m here to be with you."
Super Typhoon Haiyan, the most powerful storm ever recorded on land, left 7,350 people dead or missing in November 2013 as it devastated fishing and farming towns on central islands that were already among the Philippines` poorest.
Fourteen months later, many of those communities are still struggling to recover, with the rubble of destroyed buildings laying in piles and millions of felled coconut trees strewn across idle farmland.
The 78-year-old pontiff acknowledged the enduring pain being experienced by the survivors.
"Some of you have lost part of your families. All I can do is keep silent. And I walk with you all with my silent heart," he said.
The pope sought to reassure his audience, declaring Jesus would never let them down.
Francis`s five-day visit to the Philippines is partly aimed at helping the Church expand its influence in Asia, but he had repeatedly said giving comfort to typhoon survivors was his top priority."Seeing the pope would be like being face-to-face with Jesus Christ," Teresita Raza, 65, who camped overnight to get a good spot to see him during the mass, told AFP before he arrived.
"His presence will be of great comfort to those affected by calamities. He will help ease their burden."
The pope was due to spend the day in the typhoon-hit areas in and around Tacloban.
However organisers said the pope`s schedule would be condensed because of Tropical Storm Mekkhala, with heavy rain continuing through the first few hours of his stay there.
The mass at Tacloban airport was cut short because of the weather, with no communion. However his convoy continued to the town of Palo, about 12 kilometres (seven miles) from Tacloban, on Saturday morning.
He was due to have lunch with 30 survivors, and visit Palo`s church, one of the biggest in the area.
The Philippines endures an average of about 20 major storms a year, many of them deadly.
But the unprecedented strength of Haiyan, with winds of 315 kilometres an hour, was an extreme weather event consistent with man-made climate change, the United Nations` weather agency and scientists have said. On Friday, the pope weighed into controversial political waters, using his first major speech of the trip to demand Philippine leaders resist corruption and end the nation`s "scandalous social inequalities".
About 25 million Filipinos, or one quarter of the population, live on the equivalent of 60 cents a day or less, according to government data.
"It is now, more than ever, necessary that political leaders be outstanding for honesty, integrity and commitment to the common good," the pope said in the speech at the presidential palace.The Philippines has long been the Church`s stronghold in the region, with Catholics accounting for 80 percent of the former Spanish colony`s population.
Massive crowds gathered along the pontiff`s motorcade routes during his first two days in the country.
Pope-mania was expected to reach a peak on Sunday, with organisers expecting him to attract as many as six million people for mass at a Manila park.
If as big as expected, the crowd will surpass the previous record for a papal gathering of five million during a mass by John Paul II at the same venue in 1995.