Philippine bishops' conference launches theme of Pope Francis' 2015 visit

Archbishop John Du of Palo, Leyte (seated far left), and Cardinal Luis Tagle of Manila (to his left) accompanied a Vatican team led by Alberto Gasbarri to Tacloban City and Palo town in Leyte, central Philippines, for their first ocular inspection of possible sites for Pope Francis' 2015 papal visit. (Ronald Ramos)

Manila, Philippines — Pope Francis wants his visit in the Philippines next year to be pastoral and simple, Cardinal Luis Tagle of Manila told reporters at a press briefing here Monday.

Tagle said Francis wants to particularly encounter those who have suffered from the recent calamities that hit the country. "Central to the visit of the pope" is to show solidarity and compassion to people affected by the latest calamities, he said at the briefing of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines in Pope Pius XII Catholic Center in Paco, Manila, at the end of their July 5-7 semiannual plenary assembly.

The bishops' conference, however, has yet to finalize the date and itinerary of the pope's visit, which bishops expect the Vatican to announce sometime later this month or in August.

Last week, Tagle accompanied Vatican officials to Tacloban, Leyte, in preparation for the visit, including visiting possible sites for the pope's Mass in the central Philippines city ruined by November's Typhoon Haiyan. Proposed locations include the New Airport Apron in San Jose, Tacloban City, the government center in Palo, and the Tacloban Port area, the Palo archdiocese reported on its Facebook page.

"[Vatican officials] would then report to the Holy Father and the office in charge of the papal visit. We don't know what will happen next we will just wait," Tagle told reporters.

Philippines papal visit theme

Francis' visit to the Philippines next year is inspired by mercy and compassion, and the faithful should set their minds and hearts on this theme to prepare for the visit in communion with the pope, the bishops said in their July 7 pastoral letter on the papal visit, "A Nation of Mercy and Compassion."

"Our compassionate shepherd comes to show his deep concern for our people who have gone through devastating calamities, especially in the Visayas. He comes to confirm us in our faith as we face the challenges of witnessing to the joy of the Gospel in the midst of our trials," bishops said in their letter.

The bishops' conference said the most distinctive way to prepare spiritually for the coming of Pope Francis is for the Philippines to become a "people rich in mercy." It suggested people do acts of mercy every day, such as reaching out to a lonely stranger, advising a confused co-worker, giving food to a hungry beggar, or visiting those in prison.

Bishops reminded church members: "At the societal level, let us also not forget to address justice and mercy issues in the root causes of poverty and inequality in our country -- such as the protection of the environment, the completion of agrarian reform, and the continuing challenges of good governance, peace-building, and inclusive growth for all."

Catholics also need to prepare spiritually by confessing, "spending more time in Eucharistic adoration, reviving personal and family prayer and devotion in our homes," they added, encouraging priests to make themselves more available for this and more visible at the confessional.

"All of this opens to, nourishes, and sustains in our lives the gift of mercy from the heart of Jesus," the bishops said in their letter.

On July 5, bishops' conference President Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan asked his fellow prelates starting their assembly to prepare for the papal visit by following the example of Pope Francis.

This can be done, he said, by serving God's people with humility and happiness.

"As we prepare for the visit of Pope Francis next year, let us resolve as a fraternity of bishops to serve with humility and happiness; to speak with honesty from the mind and to listen patiently with the heart; to see the goodness in everyone and live the mercy of the Gospel," Villegas said.

Asian pilgrimage, Francis' longtime wish

During the Monday briefing, Tagle revealed that Pope Francis has long wanted to set foot in Asia.

"We learned that as a young Jesuit in Argentina, he had expressed the desire to become a missionary here in Asia, specifically in Japan, but it did not materialize because he was asked to remain in Buenos Aires. So Asia had a special spot in his heart," he said.

"This came from a heart of someone who probably has been longing this past years to step foot in Asia and to be here," Tagle added.

He said even when he invited Francis to come to the Philippines shortly after his election as pope, Francis told Tagle that he would visit Asia.

"A few months later, I met him again, and it came from him that Asia is important for evangelization. The Christian population in Asia may be numerically small but significant, and he wants to encourage the church in Asia," he said.

More than 60 percent of the world's population lives in Asia. Christians make up less than 3 percent of the region's people.

Tagle said the pope is aware of the sufferings of many Christians in Asia. "He told me that if he comes face to face with the Christians who were persecuted" and who have suffered, "he wants to kiss their hands and their feet in homage," Tagle recalled.

"You'll feel that it's not just for show. It comes sincerely from his heart, and he wants to confirm his brothers and sisters in faith," Tagle said.

Cardinal Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato at an earlier press conference on the 2016 Eucharistic Congress expressed his wish for the pope to visit Central Mindanao, where Cotabato is based. He told reporters then: "I was simply wishing that perhaps for the Holy Father when he comes to the Philippines to visit [Haiyan] victims, he can have a side trip if his time allows to go to Cotabato City and perhaps push the peace process there."

Quevedo said: "If the pope is coming to visit disaster areas, there are also victims of man-made disasters," such as people displaced and villages ravaged by armed clashes.

"After all, [Francis] already went to Palestine and gave a very good message not only in words, but also in gestures, calling for peace and reconciliation in the Middle East, particularly between the Palestinians and the Israelis," Quevedo told reporters at the June 10 press conference. "He said a papal visit with victims of disasters would show support of the Holy See for victims of disaster," not only with monetary or material aid, but "most important through prayer."

[N.J. Viehland is an NCR correspondent based in the Philippines.]

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here