Missionhurst priest attends papal visit to Philippines

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When Pope Francis carries his message of compassion and mercy to the Philippines this week, a local priest will be among those who welcome him to the Southeast Asian country still recovering from 2013's devastating typhoon and earthquake.

The pastor of St. Ann Church in Arlington and a Philippines native, Missionhurst Father Ramel ("Mel") O. Portula will concelebrate a Jan. 17 Mass and attend an address by the pope, as well as enjoy time with family and help where he can.

He made the nearly 9,000-mile trip to the island country last week, a trek that included two delayed flights and temporarily lost luggage.

But the journey was well worth it for the 43-year-old priest, who sees the pope's Jan. 15-19 visit as a source of hope and healing for his struggling homeland and as a once-in-a-lifetime personal blessing.

"Pope Francis has inspired me with his writings, his homilies, his closeness to people, his simplicity and his call to pay more attention to the poor," said Father Portula the day before he left. "I am so blessed to have this opportunity to welcome him to my country."

The pope will spend his first day in the capital city of Manila before traveling to the island of Leyte, located in the Eastern Visayas - one of three principal geographic regions in the Philippines and one of the areas most affected by Typhoon Haiyan last year. In the city of Tacloban, in northeastern Leyte, Father Portula will concelebrate Mass with the pontiff.

Although the wet season typically starts in June and wanes in October, Father Portula said recent rains have flooded the spot where the Mass is to be celebrated. With the forecast predicting additional rain, Father Portula prays the sun will make an appearance alongside the pope.

The Holy Father's next stop on the island will be Palo, where Father Portula was born and grew up - one of nine children in a devout Catholic family.

The city is the seat of the archdiocese, what Father Portula referred to as the "the Arlington of the area."

It is also where during World War II Gen. Douglas MacArthur fulfilled the famous words, "I shall return." He'd made the promise two years earlier, in 1942, when the Japanese army chased him out of the islands. "So the town has historic meaning for the Philippines-U.S. relationship," Father Portula said.

Later in the day, Father Portula will attend an address by Pope Francis to clergy and religious, seminarians and families in Palo's Cathedral of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, the place where the Missionhurst priest received his sacraments and where he was ordained in 2000.

Reflecting the visit's focus, the pope will eat lunch Jan. 17 with survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, known in the Philippines as Typhoon Yolanda. The November storm was one of the strongest ever recorded and the deadliest Philippine typhoon in modern history, killing more than 6,000 people. Just three weeks prior, the country had suffered a magnitude 7.2 earthquake.

One of Father Portula's high school classmates died in the typhoon, and he admitted that he wasn't sure he was ready to see the place where he grew up, which was transformed by the storm. "I've been told I need to prepare myself," he said.

On Jan. 11, Father Portula visited two churches, where mass graves of typhoon Haiyan victims marked the front grounds. "It feels so heavy," he wrote in an email. "But the sadness has turned into joy, albeit temporarily, due to the pope's visit."

After the pope heads back to Rome Jan. 19, Father Portula plans to help his community as much as possible. He's brought donations and gifts from St. Ann parishioners that he will distribute to the less fortunate. And he also wants to see firsthand - even if painful - what shape the country is in and to bring that knowledge back to the states.

"I want to get in touch with the real stories there," said Father Portula. "I want to tell people here (in the United States) what the situation is, help them remember places that don't get enough media coverage."

He also hopes to meditate upon the pope's message to the Filipino people and to integrate that into his ministry at St. Ann.

The visit, said Father Portula, speaks to his heart and to that of his native country.

"The pope's message is to draw closer to God and to change our ways," he said. "The Philippines is struggling to find itself. Politically there is so much corruption; there is so much social injustice. In spite of all of this, (the pope) responds with a call for us to serve one another. This is a very powerful message to the nation, to all Filipinos.

"Despite what people have been through … to be visited by such a person brings such joy and so much comfort," said Father Portula.

Three days before the pope's arrival, he described a sense of euphoria in the country: "It means a lot to the people to get a visit from a pope. To us his visit touches the very core of the human spirit - that he cares for us, that he wants to lift us up, and that he wants us to be assured of God's mercy and compassion."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015