The Philippines Embraces Pope Francis
Undeterred by rain and high winds, the unshakable faith of millions of Catholics was on full display during Pope Francis’ apostolic visit to the Philippines Jan. 15-19.
Arriving 14 months after the archipelago nation was devastated by Typhoon Haiyan, the pope’s primary reason for making the trip was to bring consolation to the families of victims and to assure survivors that they had not been forgotten. The strongest storm ever recorded to make landfall, Haiyan — known locally as Typhoon Yolanda — killed more than 7,000 people and displaced 4 million.
“When I saw this catastrophe from Rome, I felt I had to be here,” said the pope, wearing a yellow plastic poncho against the pelting rain as he gazed out upon a sea of similarly clad listeners in Tacloban, the city hit hardest by Haiyan. “I wanted to come to be with you. I’m a little late, it’s true, but I’m here.”
The first papal visit to the Philippines in two decades, Pope Francis’ trip concluded with a Mass in Manila that drew a record-breaking attendance of more than 6 million people.
Over the course of the five-day visit, Pope Francis praised the heroic strength and generosity demonstrated by so many in the aftermath of the typhoon, underscoring the need to live out one’s faith in practical acts of charity, especially to the poor and most vulnerable. He also urged Filipinos to reform social structures that perpetuate poverty and exclusion, to protect families against what he called “ideological colonization,” and to serve as missionaries of love and peace throughout Asia.
With more than 332,000 Knights in the country, these messages struck a deep chord as members have been at the forefront of innovative recovery programs and efforts to strengthen family life.
A RESOUNDING WELCOME
Greeted with jubilation upon touching down in Manila, Pope Francis had just spent three days in Sri Lanka, where he canonized the missionary priest Joseph Vaz, the country’s first saint. In contrast to the predominantly Buddhist Sri Lanka, the Philippines is 86 percent Catholic. Nearly a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line.
From his first speech, addressed to President Benigno Aquino III and the Filipino authorities and diplomatic corps Jan. 16, Pope Francis spoke of the need to serve one another in love and to embrace the country’s most vulnerable people, especially the poor.
After thanking the president for inviting him to the Philippines, the pope called on Filipinos to defend “the inviolable dignity of each human person, respect for the rights of conscience and religious freedom, and respect for the inalienable right to life, beginning with that of the unborn and extending to that of the elderly and infirm.” He went on to urge leaders to “break the bonds of injustice and oppression which give rise to glaring, and indeed scandalous, social inequalities.”
Later that morning, Pope Francis met with bishops, priests and religious at Manila’s recently restored Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. He reminded them that the source of apostolic zeal springs from “a daily encounter with the Lord in prayer,” and challenged them to let their lives “reflect the poverty of Christ, whose entire life was focused on doing the will of the Father and serving others.”
Traveling by motorcade through exuberant crowds for his last event of the day, Pope Francis met with thousands of Filipino families at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City. As soon as he arrived, he set aside his prepared remarks in English to speak in Spanish instead — the first of several occasions he did so during his trip. A priest assistant provided immediate translation to English.
“God calls upon us to recognize the dangers threatening our own families and to protect them from harm,” the pope said. He cited “growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage,” “relativism,” “the culture of the ephemeral” and “a lack of openness to life.”
Such observations were particularly striking, given recent controversy in the Philippines over the Supreme Court’s approval last April of the so-called “reproductive health bill.” The Catholic bishops and Knights of Columbus had actively opposed the government measure, which mandates and subsidizes the distribution of contraceptives in public health centers.
SOLIDARITY IN SACRIFICE
On Jan. 17, Pope Francis awoke to the news that the first local typhoon of 2015 would make landfall on Samar Island later in the day. The storm called into question whether he should risk making his scheduled flight to the nearby island of Leyte — “ground zero” of Haiyan in November 2013. Though eventually forced to cut his pastoral visit short by four hours, the pope braved gale-force winds to reach the principal destination of his apostolic journey.
Arriving at Tacloban airport, where between 200,000 to 300,000 people had waited for hours in the rain and mud, Pope Francis immediately donned a poncho and insisted on holding an open-air Mass as planned.
“I’m here to show solidarity,” the pope said. “If the people sacrificed under the rain, why should the pastor not be with them?”
After Mass, in which he cast aside his prepared text and preached a brief yet moving homily in Spanish, the pope had lunch with 30 victims of Typhoon Haiyan, who shared with him their stories of loss.
“I’ll never forget the face of the Holy Father listening to each one,” Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, archbishop of Manila, later recounted during a press conference.
“You could see the Holy Father just shaking his head,” said the cardinal, who is a Knight of Columbus and a former Columbian Squire. “I thought he would repeat the central message of his homily, but before these 30 people he himself was reduced to silence.”
After lunch, the pope had been scheduled to bless a new Pope Francis Center in nearby Palo, but the impending storm forced the papal blessing to take place in unorthodox fashion — from the popemobile — as he pulled up in front of the center before speeding off to an abbreviated meeting at the cathedral and then on to the airport.
It was at the Pope Francis Center that Archbishop John Du of Palo had arranged for the pope to bless boats from the Knights of Columbus Livelihood Project. Three boats with the emblem of the Order were placed on the grounds of the new center, but the pope did not have time to walk by and bless them as planned. Supported by the Supreme Council, the Livelihood Project has provided 200 motorized boats, constructed by local builders, to fishermen who lost their vessels in Haiyan.
“The project helped restart two key segments of the island’s economy, allowing hundreds of craftsman and fishermen to return to work and support their families,” said Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson. “These relief efforts exemplify what Knights do every day — help their neighbors in need.”
In honor of the pope’s visit, the Supreme Council also donated $200,000 to the Archdiocese of Palo to rebuild St. John the Evangelist School of Theology, the major seminary that was destroyed by the 2013 typhoon.
‘TO LEARN TO LOVE’
On his last full day in the Philippines, the pope shattered the record for attendance at a papal event, surpassing the 5 million mark set by St. John Paul II at the very same location during World Youth Day 1995.
Pope Francis’ closing Mass in Rizal Park was celebrated on the feast of Santo Niño — the Holy Child Jesus — a devotion that has deep roots in Filipino life and culture. Many in the crowd held statues of the Christ child, and the Gospel read at Mass related the words of Jesus that his followers must accept the kingdom of God with a child’s humble heart.
During his homily, Pope Francis called the Philippines “the foremost Catholic country in Asia,” pointing out that “this is itself a special gift of God, a special blessing. But it is also a vocation. Filipinos are called to be outstanding missionaries of the faith in Asia.”
The country is blessed with youth, he said, and he urged Filipinos to keep alive their strong family spirit by welcoming children with love, concern and care for their welfare.
Earlier, the pope spent the morning at a lively youth encounter at the University of Santo Tomas. More than 60 Columbian Squires participated in the program’s prayers and songs.
Once again, the pope dispensed with prepared remarks in order to personally address questions from young participants. In response to a tearful question by Glyzelle Palomar, a 12-year-old former homeless girl, about why children suffer, Pope Francis replied that he could not explain with words.
“Certain realities in life can only be seen through eyes cleansed by tears,” he said. “I invite each one of you here to ask yourself, ‘Have I learned to weep and cry when I see a child cast aside, when I see someone with a drug problem, when I see someone who has suffered abuse?’”
He added, “What is the most important subject that you have to learn in university? What is the most important subject you learn in life? To learn to love. This is the challenge that life offers you.”
Recalling the event, Jose Cuaresma, Squires chairman for the Luzon jurisdiction, said the meeting will have a great impact in the lives of Squires and young Knights. “The message we heard from the pope was: Learn to beg for God’s mercy and be open to give and receive love,” Cuaresma said. “As we are called to serve and evangelize others, we will make this an opportunity to evangelize ourselves as well.”
Luzon Deputy Arsenio Isidro G. Yap was likewise grateful for the gift of the pope’s whirlwind visit and eager to live out the Holy Father’s message. “Pope Francis’ presence gives us hope and strengthens our faith a hundred- if not a thousandfold,” Yap said. “We pray that Pope Francis’ visit will also make us a nation that is able to show mercy and compassion to the least of our brethren.”
Additional reporting by Andrew J. Matt and Brian Caulfield.
ROY LAGARDE is a staff writer and photojournalist in the media office of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines and a member of Manila Council 1000.