AMID national excitement accented by surprise security measures and last-minute confusion, millions of Filipino Catholics await the arrival of Pope Francis who is expected to set foot at the Villamor Air Base in Pasay City at 5:45 p.m. today.
Church bells are expected to peal from 5:30 to 5:45 p.m. to announce the arrival of the pope, who will be welcomed in a state ceremony at the airport tarmac, led by President Benigno Simeon Aquino III and members of his official family.
Francis will be the third pope to visit the Philippines after the Blessed Pope Paul VI in 1970 and Saint John Paul the Great in 1981 and 1995.
Manila Archbishop Antonio Cardinal Tagle called on Filipino Catholics to think of the pope’s visit as a blessing on all Filipinos and not as a visit to Manila and Leyte alone.
“People ask why the Pope will not visit other places affected by natural or man-made calamities, but we have to recognize the physical limitations. If the Pope will go to all of those places, he will have to stay here for six months,” Tagle said.
“Let us think beyond that,” the cardinal said. “Let us think Filipino. When I was in Rome a week after Yolanda battered the Philippines, the Holy Father embraced me and it felt as if he was not embracing me. It felt as if he embraced every Filipino. I hope we will think about his visit this way,” he said.
Tagle also reminded the people that real change can only be achieved if the faithful will take the initiative to heed the pope’s call to live by mercy and compassion.
“The Holy Father can only remind us, but a lot of the things that he will encourage us to do will really depend on us,” he said.
“People ask me, after the papal visit, what will change in the Philippines? I guess the answer to this is not something that the Pope can answer. This one is up to us,” he added.
After the airport welcome rites, the pontiff and his entourage will motor to the Apostolica Nunciature on Taft Avenue, also in Pasay, where Francis will stay overnight ahead of official functions on Friday.
The government’s National Organizing Committee, tasked to iron out preparations for the papal visit, implemented on Wednesday unannounced security measures to ensure the safety of the pontiff during his five-day visit.
Under the new security arrangement, authorities will allow more people to have a glimpse of the visiting head of the Roman Catholic Church when he arrives in Manila on Thursday, said Palace spokesperson Edwin Lacierda.
The committee has studied footage of the motorcade of Pope John II in 1995 when he arrived for World Youth Day at the Quirino Grandstand, Lacierda said.
The committee, he said, changed the layout of Roxas Boulevard as part of the new security set-up to prevent people from moving once the pope’s convoy nears.
The crowd will now be allowed to take the entire northbound lane going to Luneta as well as the center island, he explained.
Authorities have also put up barricades and have deployed security personnel, he added.
“So, instead of people surging to see (the pope), the crowd will now be allowed to occupy the northbound lane.”
Authorities have also formed grids to create buffer areas, and inside the grids are mini quadrants, he said.
“There will be buffer areas. In case of shoving and a stampede, people will have an area to move to,” he noted.
In 1995, organizers had to airlift Pope John Paul II in and out of the Quirino Granstrand because it was impossible for the Pope mobile to enter the area.
Lacierda said each grid will be manned by eight police personnel, 400 AFP reservists, eight to 10 Health Department personnel, eight to 10 Red Cross volunteers and two marshals.
Every morning, officials have been holding security briefings, Lacierda said, adding that Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel Roxas, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, and Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa will meet on Thursday morning for a final security briefing.
The pope’s visit follows a trip to Sri Lanka where a million worshipers packed the Colombo seafront to greet Pope Francis as he canonized Sri Lanka’s first saint on Wednesday in the biggest public celebration the city has ever witnessed.
Many had waited through the night to see the first pope to visit the island in two decades canonise Joseph Vaz, a 17th century missionary who disguised himself as a beggar to evade persecution.
The pope called on the sea of people, many holding umbrellas to shield themselves from the blazing sun, to follow Vaz’s example of religious tolerance as he delivered his homily on Colombo’s imposing Galle Face Green.
Francis, whose visit has focused on post-war reconciliation, said the missionary had shown “the importance of transcending religious divisions in the service of peace”, ministering to those in need regardless of their creed.
“I pray that... the Christians of this country may be confirmed in faith and make an ever greater contribution to peace, justice and reconciliation in Sri Lankan society,” he said.
“This is what Christ asks of you. This is what Saint Joseph teaches you. This is what the Church needs of you.”
Wednesday’s mass on the shores of the Indian Ocean was a colourful mix of the country’s diverse cultures, with hymns sung in both the Sinhala and Tamil languages as well as traditional dancers and drummers from around the island.
Crowds leaned in to touch the pope as he arrived in a customised open-topped car, before kissing the altar to mark the start of the service.
As a choir sang welcoming hymns, the pontiff greeted people in wheelchairs who had been pushed forward to the front of the vast crowd to receive his blessing.
Many held up mobile phones to film the 78-year-old, who smiled but appeared tired as he made his way to the specially-constructed stage.
On Tuesday Francis cancelled a meeting with Sri Lankan bishops saying he was “exhausted” after his overnight flight from Rome and long journey from the airport exposed to the hot sun.
Police estimate a million people attended the mass, making it the city’s biggest ever public celebration.
Sri Lanka’s Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith said the pope had brought “great joy” to the island as it struggled to recover from a long civil war that killed 100,000 people.
He asked the pope to help Sri Lankans find “the strength to ask pardon from each other for the senseless violence unleashed then”.
Many worshippers clutched photographs of loved ones who could not attend, among them 54-year-old Srimathi Fernando, whose husband is recovering from a heart attack.
“I came early to grab a spot in front so that I can show this picture to the Holy Father and get a blessing for him (her husband),” she told AFP.
Worshippers held rosary beads aloft for a mass papal blessing before Francis ended the two-hour celebration with the words “go forth, the mass has ended”.
Later on Wednesday, he will head to a small church in the jungle that was on the front lines of the conflict between government troops and guerrillas seeking a separate homeland for the country’s Tamil minority.
The Our Lady of Madhu church in the mainly Tamil north provided sanctuary during the fighting, and is now a pilgrimage destination for Christians from across the ethnic divide.
The pope’s visit comes just days after an election that exposed bitter divisions on the island and saw the surprise exit of strongman president Mahinda Rajapakse.
On Tuesday, he said the “pursuit of truth” was necessary to heal the wounds of the conflict, weighing into a fierce debate over the investigation of alleged abuses under Rajapakse.
Only around six percent of mainly Buddhist Sri Lanka’s 20-million-strong population is Catholic, but the religion is seen as a unifying force because it includes people from both the Tamil and majority Sinhalese ethnic groups.
Vaz is credited with reviving the Catholic church on the island at a time of religious persecution by Dutch colonisers, giving him a contemporary significance in a country that has suffered a rise in religious violence in recent years.
He travelled from village to village ministering to Catholics from both the Tamil and the majority Sinhalese ethnic groups, disguised as a beggar because the Dutch had banned Catholic priests from the island.
The pope’s trip comes just five months after he visited South Korea, signalling the huge importance the Vatican places on Asia and its potential for more followers.
On Thursday he will travel to the Philippines, a bastion of Christianity in the region, where he is set to attract one of the biggest-ever gatherings for a head of the Catholic Church. With AFP
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