With a lot of fervor, the entire country is preparing to receive Pope Francis in January. This is not hard to digest. We could be the last truly Catholic country in the world after the Vatican, and most of us are eager to see the Pope. In all our churches, prayers are being said after Mass these days to prepare the minds and hearts of the faithful for this visit.
Francis will be the third pope to visit since Blessed Paul VI first came in 1970. There is every reason to treat this as a very special event. From the two million faithful that turned up for the first papal visit, the numbers have grown since. On World Youth Day1995 in Manila, his second Philippine visit, Saint John Paul II presided over the biggest gathering of Christians ever assembled on the face of the earth. This would not be easy to match, but it wouldn’t hurt to try.
In an apparent effort to control the event, Malacañang has proposed that the apostolic pilgrimage be also made a state visit.
The Pope is, after all, not only the Universal Pastor and Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church but also head of the Vatican city-state. This could successfully deflate B. S. Aquino 3rd’s moral and religious indifference, but also unduly politicize the visit. One immediate result could be a drastically reduced role for Manila and Tacloban, the two host cities, deemed not too friendly with the Aquino government.
Judging by how Pope Francis has handled his public pronouncements, nothing about him will be easy to second-guess. But the Filipino poor and the victims of last year’s super typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda in Tacloban and the rest of Eastern Visayas could most certainly anticipate his message. He will have every sympathy and every blessing for those who have borne the fury of nature and the heartlessness of government, and the snail pace of its rehabilitation and rebuilding effort.
The rest we simply have to wait till we see it—this pope loves surprises.
In 1970, when Blessed Paul VI opened the Asian Bishops Conference inside the grounds of the Pontifical University of Sto. Tomas in Manila, he spoke of the role that Asia could play in the world. He told the bishops: “You have before you an immense field for your apostolate. It is difficult to speak of Asia as a whole, since more than half of mankind lives here. One can, however, point to a certain network of common interests, a certain identity in the way of looking at life, and a certain harmony of aspirations. Young in its peoples but rich in civilizations, often thousands of years old, Asia is impelled as by an irresistible desire to occupy her rightful place in the world, and her influence is effectively increasing.”
But to the youth gathered on the same campus, he delivered a more pointed message. He said: “The youth of the Philippines, like that of all Asia, is on the march. Allow Us in this regard to ask some questions: Do you know in which direction to go? Have you a clear picture of the goals you are aiming at? Are you dedicated to the search for true values? Does your wish to serve your brothers manifest itself in practical choices that prepare you to promote effectively the progress of the many? Are you convinced that one can only be truly free to the extent that one is responsible?…The Church wishes to help you reply to these vital questions.”
In the case of St. John Paul II, he first came in 1981 to beatify the proto-martyr Lorenzo Ruiz in Manila, before he canonized him at St. Peter’s basilica in Rome on Oct. 28, 1987. This was the first beatification ever done outside the Vatican, and it created a precedent. Last September 27, in Madrid, the Church beatified Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, first bishop-prelate of Opus Dei, a holy servant of the Church known to many Filipinos and even to atheists.
In 1995, St. John Paul II told four million Filipinos at Rizal Park and the rest of the nation within the archipelago and abroad: “You are the light of Asia and the world!”
And this has done so much to inflame the people’s faith.
Through the years, the government has tried, with all its limitations, to be a worthy host or co-host of papal visits. In 1970, Ferdinand Marcos drove to the airport to personally welcome Blessed Paul VI. According to one uncorroborated foreign news account, doubted by critics, he even helped to subdue the Bolivian would-be assassin, who lunged at the Pope upon arrival with a deadly kris.
In an earlier column, I had quoted Davao Archbishop Emeritus and former president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines Fernando Capalla as saying that the Pope was wounded in that incident, according to his private secretary who had kept the information secret while the Pope was still alive. This story is now confirmed by a 2007 book I picked up in Rome last week.
In “Paul VI: The Man and His Message,” Archbishop Pasquale Macchi (1923-2006), who had served as private secretary from the time Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini became Archbishop of Milan in 1955 until his death in Castelgandolfo as Pope Paul VI in 1978, writes:
“No sooner had the pope alighted from the aircraft at Manila airport, than he was attacked by Benjamin Mendoza y Amor, a Bolivian painter disguised as a priest. He had a golden crucifix in one hand and a kris (Malaysian knife) in the other. He managed to deliver two thrusts: one in the neck, luckily protected by the stiff Roman collar, and the other in the chest near the heart. He was subdued by members of the papal security and handed over to the police.
“The pope felt as if the assailant had delivered two blows, without feeling the knife-thrusts. The wounds were rather superficial, and were quickly cured by the pope’s personal physician.” Not only was the Pope able to fulfill all his engagements in the country without any delay, he was also able to carry on his visit to other parts of Asia after the Philippines.
In anticipation of St. John Paul II’s 1981 visit, Ferdinand Marcos formally lifted martial law, which he had proclaimed on Sept. 21, 1972, just to ease the Pope’s visit to the country and especially to Malacañang. Marcos had been a longtime follower of the Ilocano “Bishop” Gregory Aglipay of the Philippine Independent Church, and could hardly be described as a devout Catholic. But he showed utmost deference, bordering on devotion, to the Pope.
In 1995, St. John Paul II came again, during the presidency of Fidel V. Ramos. Ramos was a Protestant president, handpicked by his Catholic predecessor and patron, Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, the incumbent’s late mother, but he likewise showed great deference and took a direct hand in neutralizing reported security threats to the papal visit.
Today, the eruption of an extremist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) has raised serious concerns about the Pope’s security during the January visit. These are not groundless concerns. More than a week ago, I saw the pope at very close range at the Blessed Paul VI audience hall on a Monday and at the St. Peter’s Square on a Wednesday, moving freely without any obvious concern for his security and safety, as though St. John Paul II had not been struck four times by a Turkish assassin’s bullets inside that same square on May 13, 1981.
These concerns could grow according to the size and makeup of the crowds in January. I have no doubt the national and international security agencies would cooperate fully to ensure the Pope’s security and safety. But one thing remains which transcends the issue of personal security and safety. It is the moral and spiritual evil, which ordinary devotees commend to St. Michael the Archangel in their daily prayers, but which the Pope will find in the country.
Given the continuing scandals about political abuse and dirty money, the unabated plunder of the budget and the patent savaging of our constitutional and electoral democracy, can Aquino still do anything to show that he has not completely lost his way, and that, under his watch, Church and State could still work together for the good of the country?