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First Person: How Pope Francis renewed the faith of this reluctant Catholic

A selfie at the papal mass. Aaron Almadro

I had only wanted to attend the mass.
I admit, being through a lot of heartaches in 2013 and 2014 put a strain in my faith. The worst was when I lost my parents to Yolanda, my mother and father and our household help. Then just a few short months after the tragedy, after losing our home, I might also lose a portion of the land our house is on to the government in a road-widening project. 
To cap it off, exactly a year after Yolanda, on the eve of its anniversary, my brother and I talked to a survivor who was at the same hotel our parents were in. His detailed description of that horrible day forced images into our heads—pain and emotions came rushing back. A few days after, I suffered an Acute Myocardial Infarction. 
Yes, I’m only 30 and I suffered a heart attack.
In but a year’s time, I went through problems and heartaches as fast as smartphones change their models. Something was bound to snap. Ever since, I kept questioning God, “Why? What are you trying to do? What else will you give me? How long will you test me?”
I haven’t stepped inside a church since Yolanda. I haven’t fully accepted what happened. I am not ready to enter God’s house with anger in my heart. Then Pope Francis was about to visit our scarred land filled with many scarred people. I thought, Attending the papal mass might just give me the answers I needed.
As media, I wanted badly to cover the event, but as days went by, that reality became bleaker and bleaker. When accreditation for media was scheduled, I was at the Philippine Heart Center, undergoing tests. I said to myself, I will attend as a pilgrim and get enlisted at my parish, but work and circumstance did not allow me to do so. I told my fiancée Daisy that we would just go in as walk-ins, attending the Papal Mass, wherever we may be is enough. 
Two days before Pope Francis’ arrival, I was asking details on how to get in as walk-ins, the organizers said that walk-ins where not allowed anymore. Daisy and I lost hope and enthusiasm.
Then my friend Jude, part of the Secretariat for the Papal Visit to Leyte, called me and said, “Aaron, there’s still another chance for you to get in. Not as media, but as part of the official list for Yolanda survivors. With what you’ve gone through, I want you to be part of it. You’ll be seated in front along the other VIPs.” 
My heart skipped a beat.
Waiting the whole day for confirmation was agonizing, but a day before Pope Francis’ arrival, Jude sent me a message that said, “Okay na.” 
I cried. This is a dream come true, not only for me, but also for my parents who were devout Catholics. I was crying not only for joy but also for sadness and regret — my parents should have been the ones attending.
Another miracle happened as my friend Sharilee also told me that she had an extra ID for my fiancée; though it's in the standing crowd, she’d still be able to attend the papal mass.
Securing an ID to the papal mass was the first miracle. Aaron Almadro
On January 17, my fiancée and I started to walk at around 3 a.m. from the Coca-Cola junction to the airport. I heard that pilgrims started to line up at the venue as early as the afternoon before. There were already a lot of people, all walking toward the airport. 
It felt like deja vu, as everyone was just walking and walking. A year before, right after Yolanda, thousands of people were also walking — dazed and confused, some were crying and some had blank faces. 
But now, we noticed that everyone was smiling. Everyone was excited to attend the Papal Mass. It helped build our excitement, too.
It started to drizzle around 4 a.m. The walking crowd moved at a snail pace since security was strict. By the time we arrived at the final security check, it was already 5:30 a.m. My fiancée and I got separated earlier because of the segregation of male and female pilgrims.
Looking for my quadrant, I found out how close I was to the altar. I didn’t know that I would be that close. I was giddy with excitement and grateful for this luck. Even after two hours of walking, I couldn’t keep still and sit down. I tried looking for Daisy.
But the rain wouldn't stop and I was looking at a sea of yellow raincoats; there were thousands of pilgrims. The people screamed and shouted and clapped when a live coverage of the plane that will bring the Pope to Tacloban took off. Then the emcees advised us to sit and stay in our quadrants because the Pope will be arriving soon, I had to return to my place.
I knew that the plane was near when I heard people shouting. As soon as the plane was visible, I didn’t know why tears were streaming down my face. I was both happy and ecstatic. 
I asked myself: Why am I happy? Was the Pope the answer to my questions?
Then as the door of the plane opened, Pope Francis came out and waved. I lost it. I was crying so hard, when I looked around I also saw people smiling, chanting, crying. I kept saying to myself, “Mommy, Daddy, the Pope is here.” 
When the Pope traveled to the holding area, I was smiling all throughout. This isn’t just the Pope Francis Fever, this is the feeling of hope and joy. Pope Francis did not only represent these, but also Jesus Christ. He was the closest thing we have of proof that God exists. 
Waiting for the Pope. Aaron Almadro
This was the first time in years that I listened, really listened to Holy Mass. While I was listening I was also contemplating. I was thinking of my faith, my beliefs, my religion. I was searching inside my soul the feelings I have kept for so long — the anger, the frustration, the sorrow, the pain, the longing for my parents. I was thinking of the dreams that were supposed to be, the plans that did not happen, and why I had blamed God for all of it.
When Pope Francis decided to be spontaneous for his homily, every word he said felt like it was directed to me. 
“So many of you have lost everything. I don’t know what to say to you. But the Lord does know what to say to you. 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. Many of you have asked the Lord, why Lord?” Pope Francis said in his homily.
My tears were nonstop, and all throughout I was thinking of my parents. I removed the hood of my raincoat and my cap. I let the rain pour down my face. It was like God washing away my tears. Along with my tears was the anger, the hatred, the regret. 
I know I will never be alone. I have my brother Marlo and his wife Vanessa, my fiancée Daisy, and my aunt and uncles and countless cousins. But before, I always felt alone. I also kept asking, why am I alone?
He did not give me answers, because as clichéd as it sounds, the answers were indeed, in me. Pope Francis said, “Let us know that we have Mother Mary and our great brother Jesus, we are not alone. We also have many brothers who in this moment of catastrophe came to help you, and we too, because of this we feel more brothers and sisters, because we helped each other.”
People kept saying to me, “Aaron, God has a plan.” But I kept on replying, “If He has a plan, what is it? It’s been a year already and I need to get on with my life.”
The anger was gnawing at my heart, gnawing at the goodness remaining. Hatred was taking over, and it made me sick with emptiness. 
The Papal Mass was an eye-opener. Pope Francis helped me see through the anger and pain. He gave us assurance that we will never be alone and who to turn to in times of great despair. He knew what to say to all of us. To me.
My heart was empty, but now it was filled with renewed faith. — JST, GMA News

Aaron J.P. Almadro worked as an editor and art director for various magazines. Returning to his father's hometown, Eastern Visayas, he is now a media consultant to LGUs and government agencies, marketing manager of NISSAN in Eastern Visayas, and the founder, editor-in-chief, and creative director of Eastern Visayas’ first travel and lifestyle magazine, 8 Magazine. He lost both his parents to Typhoon Yolanda.