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Lessons from Yolanda

Brian Caulfield

Half a World Away

LOOKING at the images of the destruction caused by super Typhoon Yolanda, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless. How can such loss of life be adequately grieved over, and the dignity of the victims properly honored when some of the bodily remains may never be found? Where will the money and the muscle to rebuild come from? What can mere mortals do in the face of such destructive powers of nature? 

At the heart of these and countless similar questions is a deeper one. Can anything I do in this short life make a difference when all human efforts can be swept away in minutes by mindless natural forces? Tragedies such as this one force us to confront the limits of our humanity and the meaning of our lives. They also demand a response from the depths of our heart. We can fall back into ourselves and conclude that life is basically – in the words of the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes – “nasty, brutish and short.” Or we can reach out of ourselves to help others and find meaning in the context of faith in God. 

I am here in the Philippines, meeting with Knights of Columbus leaders to help coordinate our fraternal order’s relief efforts in the wake of Yolanda. I am pleased to report that the response of the Filipino people to this disaster has been overwhelmingly to reach out to one another and to God. In my time in Manila and Cebu, I have met with refugees from the storm, whose homes were destroyed and whose relatives were swept to their death by the ocean surges. I have also paid visits to Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila; Archbishop Jose S. Palma of Cebu; Hilario G. Davide III, Governor of the Province of Cebu, and a number of Knights of Columbus who have been involved in relief efforts. Even amid stories of loss, grief, pain and sadness, there remains a shining hope and a resilience that can only be explained by faith. It is the faith of a 7-year-old orphan in Tacloban, who lost both parents to Yolanda, playing with a friend amid the splintered remains of her home along the shoreline. When asked if she blames God for what happened, she shakes her head simply and says that the people need to pray more that such disasters do not occur again. 

That is the faith of a child, who Jesus said would be great in the kingdom of heaven. 

Faith was also shown by Archbishop John Du of Palo, who decided to push forward with the planned celebrations for the archdiocese’s 75th anniversary, even though the cathedral’s roof had been sheared off by the wind and all that remained were four walls supporting the arched beams. The scheduled ordinations went on as well, since to postpone them would deprive parishes of much-needed new priests, Archbishop Du explained, showing his faith in God’s providence and the priesthood. The roof of his residence was blown off, but like a good shepherd he announced that he will repair the extensive damage to the seminary building before replacing the roof on his own house. 

Faith was also expressed by a woman in Palo who spoke to Cardinal Tagle during his visit for the archdiocese’s jubilee. When he first saw the barren hills that had once been thick with trees, and the piles of wood that had been thousands of homes, Cardinal Tagle’s thoughts immediately turned to the human suffering. “If this is the result of the storm,” he wondered to himself, “imagine what the people were going through at the time all this was happening.” Yet at the jubilee Mass, the cathedral was filled to overflowing with the faithful. Afterward, a woman approached the cardinal and they discussed the needs of the people. He asked how she and her family would celebrate Christmas amid so much destruction. “She said that maybe with everything that they had lost, this would be the first time they will be able to appreciate the true meaning of Christmas,” Cardinal Tagle recalled. “Without the lights and the wrapped gifts, they would truly know how simple Christmas can be, like the poor Christ Child in the manger.” 

Of course, the Church of the Philippines, through organizations such as Caritas and Catholic Relief Services, is providing for the material needs of the millions left homeless. This, too, is a work of faith, the Gospel mandate to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and shelter the homeless. The Knights of Columbus is assisting with relief efforts, already delivering thousands of food sacks to families and making plans for livelihood programs by purchasing boats for fishermen, seeds for farmers and chainsaws for people to cut up the thousands of felled trees and use the wood to build temporary homes. The Supreme Council in New Haven, Conn., has committed $500,000 over the long-term for these relief and rehabilitation efforts. 

As an American who comes from a culture that tempts us to think that material goods alone make up a good life, I’ve learned a valuable lesson from my time in the Philippines. Happiness does not come from what we possess; it comes from our relationships with friends and family members and especially with our closeness to God. The victims of Yolanda need our help to get their lives and livelihoods back together, but we need their witness of faith amid grief and loss. We should thank them as we pray for them and offer them our assistance.


(Brian Caulfield is Communications Specialist in the Office of the Supreme Knight and Vice Postulator for the Canonization Cause of Father Michael McGivney, the founder of the Knights of Columbus.)  

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