Security top concern of government in wake of jihadist threat to January papal visit.
Just one verse each day.
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.
On Jan. 17, he will fly to Tacloban City 360 miles southeast of Manila. It is considered the “ground zero” of last year’s typhoon Haiyan that swept through 44 provinces along the central Philippines. More than 2,700 of the 6,300 typhoon-related deaths were recorded in the city. A storm surge from the east coast of Leyte province flooded communities there, drowning people and flattening their neighborhoods.
Pope Francis will preside at a Mass near Tacloban International Airport before joining typhoon survivors for lunch at at the archbishop’s residence in nearby Palo City.
In Palo, the pontiff will preside at the blessing of Pope Francis Center for the Poor, after which he will meet the priests, women and men religious, seminarians and families of survivors at Palo cathedral.
Archbishop John Du of Palo, seat of the Church in Leyte, invited the “hundreds of thousands” of people he expects will flock to Tacloban for papal visit events: “Let us prepare for this together without bickering and without undermining each other’s participation.”
Political rivalry is reportedly hampering government post-typhoon relief and reconstruction work. Survivors have also been quoted in media reports saying that government was evicting them from temporary shelters to clear the way for the pope’s motorcade route. At the press conference, however, Paynor explained that whatever movement of displaced people that is being done now is part of the rehabilitation plan of the government drafted way before the pope’s visit was announced.
Archbishop Du in his message read at the press conference cited the "unity" he said people have achieved in praying together for the papal visit. “Let’s contribute our own goodwill and effort to ensure that the historic visit of Pope Francis will not be marred by any untoward incident,” the archbishop said.
Returning to Manila, the pope will hold a short meeting with leaders of various religions on Jan. 18 at the pontifical University of Santo Tomas in Manila. At 10:30 a.m. he will proceed to the university’s sports field to join an encounter with the youth before he heads out to Rizal Park in the center of Manila for his public Mass at 3:30 p.m.
NJ Viehland writes from Manila.