MANILA, Philippines — As Pope Francis prepares to arrive in the Philippines, the local committee organizing the visit is praying for salvation from the one unpredictable force that could derail the visit: the weather.
Forecasters say that a tropical depression projected to enter the Philippines today or tomorrow could turn into a cyclone later this week, coinciding with the visit of Pope Francis to the island of Lyete, the same location that in 2013 was devastated by Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Typhoon Yolanda.
“We’re just praying that we will be blessed with good weather,” said Bishop Mylo Vergara, head of the media committee for the papal visit to the Philippines.
The state weather bureau, PAGASA, said a tropical depression will enter the Philippine region between Wednesday evening and Thursday morning local time, at which point it will be locally named “Amang.”
Although the forecast says the weather could change for better or worse, heavy rain and strong winds are expected for the pope’s visit to Lyete as well as an outdoor Mass scheduled for Sunday afternoon.
Saturday’s visit to Lyete is one of the driving forces of the visit, since Francis wanted to personally express his support to the inhabitants of Tacloban and Palo, impoverished cities that suffered the most deaths from the 2013 typhoon.
“By God’s grace and miracle, the depression is weakening, so we’ll continue to pray really hard that it won’t intervene with the visit,” Vergara said.
The pope is scheduled to celebrate Mass at the Tacloban airport, considered ground zero for Yolanda, and have lunch with 30 survivors of the super-typhoon as well as the destructive Bohol earthquake.
Vergara told Crux that he’s not considering any event less amenable to cancellation than others, since the visit as a whole is a blessing.
“It’s not every day that the Holy Father visits a country,” he said.
He didn’t rule out the possibility, however, that one or more of the activities planned for the Jan. 15-19 visit will have to be canceled, either as a result of weather or simply because “it’s the Philippines,” meaning unforeseen logistical complications.
That’s already happened to Francis once on his current outing to Asia. On Thursday, the day he arrived in Sri Lanka, a planned meeting with the country’s bishops was scrubbed because of difficulties getting in from the airport, including the complication of navigating past an honor guard of 40 ceremonially dressed elephants.
Considering that the mayor of Manila has decreed the days of the visit as public holidays, and the fact that more than 80 percent of the country is Catholic, record-breaking multitudes are expected for this visit.
The size of the turnout could delay the program of the papal visit in a city where heavy traffic daily turns a car journey of nine miles into a two-hour ride.
“There might be changes or cancelations,” said Vergara, “but it’s his presence [in the Philippines] that’s important. Whatever happens, the presence of the Vicar of Christ with us is enough to feel the touch of God’s love.”
Vergara, who’s been part of the Local Organizing Committee since the beginning, said that planning the visit has been at times overwhelming, in part because they had only six months warning.
“The last time a pope came, in 1995 when St. John Paul II visited us for World Youth Day, we had two years,” he said.
A striking difference between many papal trips to other countries and this one is that there seems to be no one opposing the visit. So far, there have been no lay movements questioning the cost of the visit, no organization questioning the Church’s stand on abortion or other issues, no religious groups questioning the legitimacy of the leader of the Catholic Church.
For Vergara, much of it has to do with the personality of the Latin American pontiff.
What’s remarkable about Pope Francis, according to the Filipino prelate, is that he inspires people not only from all walks of life, but even from other faiths — including those who have no faith.
“The draw of the pope is so strong,” said Mylo, “that even if you’re an atheist who doesn’t have God in the template of your mind, you’re drawn to him.”