Pope Francis arrives in Philippines to rapt faithful

Authorities bracing themselves for up to 8 million people to attend papal Mass

Pope Francis says there are limits to freedom of expression and religious faiths should not be made fun of. Video: Reuters


Cheering throngs greeted Pope Francis when he arrived in the deeply Catholic Philippines yesterday for the first papal visit in 20 years to a country whose church is struggling with profound social changes and a decline in political power.

The visit comes on the heels of a major loss for the church, the implementation of a reproductive health law to provide free contraception to women, a measure the church had steadfastly opposed for years. The law, upheld by the supreme court last year, was supported by a wide majority of Catholics.

However, Francis’s message of reform and inclusiveness resonates with many Catholics here, whose attitudes toward politics and social issues have evolved faster than those of their often conservative clergy, analysts say.

“There were four million people gathered when Pope John Paul II came to Manila in 1995,” said the Rev Xavier C Alpasa, a priest and professor at Ateneo de Manila, a Jesuit university in Manila. “That record will be broken because of the deep spirituality of Filipino Catholics, but also because of Pope Francis himself. People are so enamoured by his inclusive statements, his revolutionary ideas, his compassion.”

The 1995 visit was the largest papal gathering ever. The authorities are bracing themselves for as many as eight million people to attend a papal Mass in Manila on Sunday.

Yesterday’s celebration began as the sun was setting at Villamor air base, where hundreds of people awaited the pope’s arrival from Sri Lanka. As he emerged from the aircraft, a strong tropical breeze sent his skullcap flying.

A child handed him a bouquet and a line of officials kissed his ring before the papal motorcade departed for a drive through the capital, where tens of thousands of people crowded the streets for a glimpse.

In the Philippines, 81 per cent of the population identify themselves as Catholic and, as recently as 30 years ago, a potent church was credited with mobilising crucial support for the overthrow of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Home to 7 per cent of the world’s Catholics, the Philippines is also a pillar of the church in Asia. More than half the Catholics in Asia call the Philippines home. While support for the church appears as strong as ever – the 81 per cent figure has held steady in the national census – what that means is shifting.

Weekly church attendance has declined from 66 per cent in 1991 to 41 per cent today. This compares with weekly attendance rates of more than 70 per cent for Muslims and other Christians in the Philippines.

The country has one of Asia’s youngest populations and many parishioners look to social media as much as to Sunday sermons for spiritual guidance. Many Filipinos, while steadfast Catholics, find themselves at odds with their clergy on key social issues and the political role of the church.

The Philippines is one of the few countries in the world with no legal divorce, largely because of church opposition. Abortion and same-sex marriage are illegal. Francis has not changed church doctrine on these issues but has come across as more open to the possibility than his predecessors. His 2013 statement that the church had become too “obsessed” with homosexuality, abortion and contraception was welcomed by many Catholics. He has called for greater acceptance of gay and divorced Catholics by the church.

The changes stressed by Pope Francis are particularly welcome among young Filipinos, according to polls. In a 2013 survey, more than half of young Catholics said they wanted to see their church less involved in politics, while 25 per cent said they did not find homosexuality or the use of contraceptives to be morally wrong.