MANILA, Philippines — Pope Francis begins a four-day visit Thursday in the Philippines, where he’s expected to attract record-breaking crowds in a country used to welcoming popes with rock-star intensity.
From Jan. 15-19, Francis will meet the poor several times, along with a group of local seminarians and a delegation of leaders from other religions. On Sunday he’ll celebrate a Mass that some expect to attract 6 million faithful or more, which would shatter the all-time record for turnout at a papal event which, of course, was set in the Philippines in 1995.
One principal motive for the visit is Francis’ wish to express his support to survivors of two major natural disasters, Typhoon Haiyan — called Yolanda here — and a 7.2 magnitude earthquake, which together killed thousands and devastated whole regions of the country in 2013.
Interestingly, a tropical depression expected to reach the Philippines sometime early Thursday could put a crimp in the pontiff’s schedule, especially when he heads to the region most affected by Yolanda on Saturday.
This is the third papal visit to the Philippines, after Blessed Pope Paul VI in 1970, who’s been beatified by Francis, and Pope St. John Paul II in both 1981 and 1995.
The Polish pope’s 1995 visit to Manila for the Church-sponsored World Youth Day drew an estimated 4 million to 5 million people to his concluding Mass, considered the largest crowd in history ever to attend a papal event.
John Paul was set for another visit to the Philippines in 2003 for a Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families, but failing health prevented him from pushing through with the trip. (As a footnote, that’s the same event that will bring Francis to the United States in September.)
The Philippines holds one other record regarding papal trips, which is both less well-known and more dubious: It’s the only host nation where two different popes have been the object of assassination attempts — one an actual attack, the other a threat that later became public.
In 1970, Paul VI was stabbed on the Manila airport runway by a Bolivian surrealist painter named Benjamin Mendoza, who got close to the pontiff by dressing as a priest and lunged at him with a knife. The attack was thwarted, and Paul VI escaped with only a superficial wound on the chest.
During his 1995 visit, John Paul II was the target of a plot organized by Khalid Sheikh, al-Qaeda’s operations chief and the mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Security services prevented the attack, and the visit was unaffected.
Those previous experiences, together with reported pledge of allegiance by armed groups from southern Philippines to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, have the country in “full alert status” for Francis’ arrival.
More than 40,000 troops from the local police and the military have been deployed to guarantee safety, and their presence has been visible in the streets of Manila since Monday.
Top military commander Gregorio Catapang Jr. candidly described the papal visit as “the biggest security nightmare” of the government, although he was referring less to terrorist threats than to the possibility that popular excitement could boil over.
Filipino President Benigno Aquino III, a devout Catholic, appealed to the public to be vigilant during the pope’s visit, saying that “the people are the key” to guarantee an orderly and peaceful experience.
With excitement reaching a fever pitch, the country’s political leader made an appeal on national television last Monday calling on Filipinos to follow strict security guidelines.
He said that although no direct threats to the pontiff have been reported, even an admirer trying to pass through barricades for a selfie, or to touch the pope’s frock, could trigger a stampede.
The fervor of the faithful is, for many observers, the real threat to the pope’s safety, not to mention everyone else’s.
A 23-year-old policeman who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak about security, told Crux that he’s not only afraid for the pope’s life, but also his own.
“We Filipinos have a very strong and vivid faith, and moved by the hope to be close to the pope, we can lose sight of how dangerous such crowds can be,” he said.
He’s one of thousands of police officers who will act as human barricades during a 17-mile Pope-mobile ride planned for Francis. He said he worries that the crowd-control plans, which include a cement wall similar to those used on highways and a second human barricade made up of volunteers, won’t suffice.
Despite Pope Francis’ request for sobriety and a “Jesus-centered” visit, posters, shirts, coins, stamps, plush toys, coffee mugs, and even cookies portraying the pontiff are part of a seemingly endless supply of mementos currently on sale, offering a mirror of a deep Filipino love affair with the pope.
Local newspapers have caught the popular mood. The Wednesday edition of The Philippine Star, the newspaper of record in Manila, included a half-page teaser that said, “There’s a Pope Francis in you and me,” inviting readers to follow the visit in the paper.
Some locals, however, insist this is not Francis-mania, but rather Pope-mania.
“We would have been as excited if it was Benedict XVI or any other pope who was visiting us,” Dorothy Jeanne Castaneda told Crux. “The Vicar of Christ is coming. How could we not be exuberant?”
Castaneda said the paraphernalia surrounding the visit doesn’t diminish a deeper, but sometimes unseen, spiritual preparation. For months, during every Mass celebrated in the country the faithful have been reciting a “National Prayer for the Papal Visit.”
Aris Cruz, a concierge at one of the many international hotels that dominate the landscape of Manila’s bay area, said he’s excited that he’ll be working as a parking valet during most of the visit.
The Popemobile is scheduled to pass by the hotel on the way from Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport to the papal residence, and Cruz said he’ll try to catch a glimpse of the pontiff.
“Hopefully, I’ll be able to see Francis riding the white jeepney,” he said.
(The jeepney is the typical mode of transport for poor Filipinos. One of them has been converted specifically for the visit, and will be used as one of the two popemobiles that will be used in Manila.)
Cruz said he won’t be too disappointed if things don’t work out.
“It’s not about seeing the pope, is about listening to what he has to say,” he told Crux. “Jesus will be speaking through him and we should all listen.”
A Filipino colleague of Cruz agreed: “It’s not supposed to be a spectacle or a movie, that you soon forget ever seeing,” said Eugenio Campos. “It’s about his message and how it’ll change our lives.”
Although he’ll spend most of his time in Manila, on Saturday the pontiff will go to one of the country’s almost 7,000 islands to visit Tacloban and Palo, impoverished cities that bore the brunt of the deaths from Typhoon Yolanda in 2013.
Francis is scheduled to say an outdoor Mass, bless a Center for the poor named after him, and meet with seminarians and other clergy.
In Manila, he will meet with poor families, hold a private Mass for clergy and religious, meet with young people, and hold an interfaith encounter with religious leaders.
Francis is scheduled to return to Rome from Manila on Monday.