Security top concern of government in wake of jihadist threat to January papal visit.
MANILA — A high-ranking government official in the Philippines estimated that 95 percent of the government’s preparations for Pope Francis’ visit here in January concern the pope’s security.
President Benigno Aquino III’s executive secretary, Paquito Ochoa, Jr., declined to discuss details of reported threats, including supposed jihadists’ announced plans to attack the pope.
“We don’t want to pronounce anything about these matters of national security,” Ochoa said during a meeting with journalists Friday. He stressed that the government wants to secure “not only the pope. Of course we are also concerned about our countrymen.”
Ochoa joined Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines Ambassador to the Holy See Marciano Paynor and others at a media briefing about plans for the papal visit.
The fervor that many Filipino Catholics have is another challenge the government faces in ensuring security. Ochoa gave as example millions of devotees who flock to Manila streets on the Feast of the Black Nazarene. “We’re a bit worried about this kind of behavior of devotees. The Black Nazarene is just an image and here we have a living image of God, so that’s our concern,” he said.
The government is preparing for “millions” of people to fill Manila’s Rizal Park for the pope’s public Mass on Jan. 18. “We expect it will be fully occupied and we expect the roads leading to Luneta (Rizal Park) will be crowded,” Ochoa said.
Paynor appealed to media to request people when they report on the papal visit to control themselves and cooperate with those keeping order at event venues. The diplomat shared that when Pope St. John Paul II came to Manila for World Youth Day in 1995, the government’s "biggest problem" was the "people surge" around the site of the papal activities. "We could not keep to his schedule because the roads were blocked" with people, Paynor recalled.
Nonetheless, Ochoa stressed that the government is ready for “the Pope of surprises.” Pope Francis in his papal trips outside the Vatican had stepped down from his vehicle, and reached out to the crowd to touch people.
Preparatory meetings of Church groups did not set a target number of people who will be attending the events or following them through media coverage. Instead, Cardinal Tagle said, Church leaders in the Philippines are asking their flock, estimated at 80.6 million Catholics, to prepare for the pope’s visit to Manila, Tacloban and Palo cities through prayer, reflection and living out the visit’s theme of Mercy and Compassion.
The theme of the pope’s visit calls Filipinos to personal and societal responsibility, Cardinal Tagle explained. He mentioned its challenges to Catholics: “Reach out with love to the neglected and abandoned, help heal the wounds inflicted on children, women and families, respect neighbors who differ from us and form the youth in responsible freedom.”
The pope’s visit also calls Filipinos “to value life and creation and to imbue our culture and society with mercy and compassion with joy,” the cardinal added.
He reminded the faithful that attending Mass frequently, repenting for their sins and habitually doing acts of justice and love help to “strengthen and purify” excitement for the pope’s visit.
The pope is to arrive at the Philippines Villamor Air Base in Pasay City the afternoon of Jan. 15, where he will be welcomed with simple rites, and will depart for Rome from the same airport at 10 a.m. on Jan. 19. Francis, who will be on a pastoral visit as well as a state visit, will join a welcome ceremony at Malacanang Presidential Palace Jan. 16 before paying a courtesy visit to the president. He will meet with various government and diplomatic officials, join religious men and women at Mass at Manila Cathedral before his 5:30 p.m. encounter with representatives of families from various parishes.