POPE Francis arrived in the Philippines on Thursday for a five-day trip in the Catholic Church’s passionate and chaotic Asian heartland that is tipped to attract a world-record papal crowd.
Church bells tolled for 15 minutes while Filipinos were glued in front of television sets as the Sri Lankan Airlines A340-200 jet carrying the pope landed at the Villamor Air Base in Pasay City at dusk while hundreds of thousands lined the route where he was expected to pass.
Filipinos cheered in front television screens when Francis smiled as he looked out an airplane window upon touchdown and hundreds of children and teenagers chanted “Welcome Pope Francis” at the tarmac while performing dance numbers they rehearsed for weeks.
When the pope exited the plane, his zucchetto flew off his head while his pellegrina was blown over his head by a breeze that one newspaper reporter said signaled the kind of welcome he will get in the Philippines.
President Benigno Aquino III and Vice President Jejomar Binay were also at the tarmac to greet Francis, along with leaders of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines as well as Vatican officials who had flown in ahead of the pope.
Both the President, Vice President and Cabinet officials who were at the welcome line dutifully kissed the Fisherman’s Ring while the pope hugged Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle who was beside CBCP president and Lingayen Archbishop Socrates Villegas.
After briefly refreshing himself at the Dignitaries’ Lounge, the pope boarded an open, white pope mobile at 6:19 p.m. and was motored to the Apostolic Nunciature in Malate, Manila, which will serve as his official residence while in the Philippines.
Tagle and the pope’s interpreter Msgr. Mark Gerald Miles accompanied the pontiff as papal bodyguards hung on to the pope mobile.
Unlike the motorcade of Pope John Paul II in 1995 which took hours, the papal motorcade moved faster, but the route was also lined with cheering people with four northbound lanes of Roxas Boulevard until Quirino Avenue packed with hundreds of thousands.
Children shouted “Lolo [Grandpa] Kiko,” the Filipino nickname of endearment for men named Francis while others cheered “Pope Francis, we love you.”
The trip took only 38 minutes and the motorcade did not make an unscheduled stop which the pope sometimes orders. By 6:55 p.m., the pope was already at the Apostolic Nunciature where tens of thousands had been awaiting him for hours before his arrival.
Francis has said his two-nation tour is aimed at adding momentum to already impressive growth for the Church in Asia, with its support in the Philippines the benchmark for the rest of the region.
Eighty percent of the former Spanish colony’s 100 million people practice a famously fervent brand of Catholicism, and the pope is set to enjoy thunderously enthusiastic crowds throughout his stay.
“Every step he makes, every car ride he takes, every moment he stays with us is precious for us,” Archbishop Villegas said as he called on all Filipinos to make an effort to see him.
“It’s a blessing to see the pope. That’s why we’re here,” school teacher Jeannie Blesado, 35, told AFP as she sat on the side the road more than six hours before the pope was due to arrive.
The Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi S.J., director of the Holy See Press Office, said the welcome Pope Francis received “was very impressive.”
“Thank you very much, this first encounter of pope with the people was very impressive. I don’t know how many people in the streets, I was lost and I don’t have an official number, but it was an impressive number,” Lombardi said during a press briefing at the Diamond Hotel
“Obviously, he loves people and he knows Filipino people in Europe and Argentina and Filipino people are everywhere,” Lombardi said.
“He understands very well the enthusiasm that he will experience here is something particular and the entire action would be around him, waiting for words of consolation, of love, hope and he hopes that he will find prepared hearts to receive more grace in these days,” the Vatican spokesman added.
The high-point of his trip is expected to be an open-air mass on Sunday at a park in Manila, with organizers preparing for up to six million people despite a forecast of rain and security concerns.
Organizers have said that, if the crowd is as big as expected, it will surpass the previous record for a papal gathering of five million during a mass by John Paul II at the same venue in 1995.
Francis, who is the third pope to visit the Philippines, is also due to visit communities devastated by Super Typhoon Haiyan, which killed or left missing 7,350 people in 2013.
Church officials have said one of the main reasons for Francis wanting to visit the Philippines was to make a “mercy and compassion” trip to meet survivors of the typhoon.
On Saturday, he is scheduled to deliver a mass to tens of thousands of people in Tacloban, one of the worst-hit cities in the central Philippines, and have an intimate lunch with 30 typhoon survivors.
The main scheduled events on Friday included a state welcome at the presidential palace, a mass at Manila Cathedral and a meeting at a shopping mall with thousands of families.
Authorities have expressed major concerns over the pope’s security in the Philippines, where attempts have been made to kill visiting pontiffs twice before.
Nearly 40,000 soldiers and police are being deployed to protect Francis in what Philippine military chief General Gregorio Catapang described as a “security nightmare”.
Potential stampedes from the giant crowds, as well as the threat of Islamic militants or lone-wolf assailants are among the concerns.
On the first papal visit to the Philippines in 1970, Bolivian painter Benjamin Mendoza donned a fake priest’s cassock and swung a knife at Pope Paul VI as he arrived at Manila airport. Paul VI was wounded but continued his trip without disclosing his injury.
One week before John Paul II’s 1995 visit, police uncovered a plot by foreign Islamist extremists to kill him by bombing his Manila motorcade route.
Adding to the concerns, the 78-year-old pontiff has insisted he will not travel in a bullet-proof “popemobile” during his big events so he can be closer to the faithful.
The pope flew out of Sri Lanka on Thursday morning, a day after one million people gathered to hear him give mass in what police said was the biggest public celebration ever for the capital of Colombo.
His visit, which began on Tuesday, came days after an election that exposed bitter divisions on the island and saw the surprise victory of Maithripala Sirisena over strongman president Mahinda Rajapakse.
Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith said the pope had brought “great joy” to the island as it struggled to recover from civil war. With AFP
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