Pope Francis will make his second apostolic visit to Asia. From 13-15 January, Sri Lanka and from 15-19, the Philippines.
A few days before the pope’s visit, Sri Lanka will go to the pole. There is a fear that election organizers will exploit the pope’s visit as a political tool. In fact, posters have been displayed in Catholic-populated areas showing President Mahinda Rajapaksa at a recent audience with the pope. Rajapaksa, a member of the majority Buddhist community who is seeking an unprecedented third term, is being challenged by his former health minister Maithripala Sirisena, who is also a Buddhist.
The church has asked that all campaign posters with the image of the pope and other church symbols be removed. It said a previous request to political parties appeared to have been ignored. Roman Catholics account for around six percent of Sri Lanka’s 20 million population and their block vote is seen as crucial to secure the presidency in the January 8 vote.
The pope is set to leave on Monday, 12 January, and arrive in Sri Lanka the next morning. After the welcoming ceremony at Colombo’s international airport, the pope will meet with the bishops and Sri Lankan president Rajapaksa. Later in the afternoon, an inter-religious meeting is set to take place at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall.
The next day, there will be the canonisation of the Blessed Joseph Vaz at Galle Face Green in the capital, Colombo. Joseph Vaz, called the “Apostle of Sri Lanka”, was born in Benaulin (the Indian state of Goa) in 1651 and was ordained a priest in the Congregation of St. Filippo Neri. He went on a mission in Sri Lanka and founded more than 15 churches and 400 chapels. His translation of the Gospel into the two languages of the country, Tamils and Sinhalese, is considered of precious value. Vaz died in Kandy in 1711, on January 16, the day on which his feast is celebrated in the liturgical calendar. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II on January 21, 1995, during his apostolic visit to Sri Lanka. “The canonization of Joseph Vaz, co-founder of our Church is a great gift and we thank Pope Francis”: said Mons. Vianney Fernando, Bishop of Kandy.
After the celebration, Pope Francis will travel to the Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary in Madhu, one of the most revered sites in all of Asia, where he will lead a prayer to the Virgin. After that, he will return to the capital. The next day, he will depart for the Philippines, where he will arrive in the afternoon.
Members of the Christian Solidarity Movement (CSM) have asked Pope Francis to postpone his planned Apostolic Journey to Sri Lanka. According to the priests, sisters and lay members of CSM, the pontiff’s visit is likely to be “spoiled” by its proximity to presidential elections. On the other hand, there is serious risk of political violence, also because the results of the elections will be announced on 10 January.
Philippines. Experience God’s compassion
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila has said that: “The pastoral visit of Pope Francis must be focused on Mercy and Compassion and would certainly offer vast opportunities to experience grace, to hear callings, to disturb comfort zones, to value the poor, to renew society, to care for creation and to live honourably”.
Cardinal Tagle has appealed to lawmakers in the Philippines not to politicize Pope Francis’ visit. “I appeal to those planning to welcome the pontiff not to use the occasion for other motivations. We welcome him as pastor of the Church. Let us respect the nature of his visit. The pope himself said that the focus of the visit should not be him but Jesus”. Tagle has said that Pope Francis himself has requested that his visit must be “pastoral and simple”.
A welcome ceremony and a meeting with Filipino President Benigno Aquino will take place the next day, Friday 16 January. Before lunch, the pope will take part in a Mass with bishops, priests, religious men and women in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Manila. Cardinal Tagle said the Mass would be a regular one but those who will be attending will have to ask for God’s forgiveness “for their sins, not just as Christians but also as leaders of the Church.” He said the Church leaders’ confessions would revolve around the main themes of “obedience, poverty, and chastity”. “The priests and the religious are reminded that we also need to experience God’s compassion because we are also weak, sinners, and we are always in the hands of a merciful God,” Tagle said.
In the afternoon, he will meet with families in Manila’s Mall of Asia Arena. On Saturday 17 January, Francis will leave Manila for Tacloban City and Palo in Leyte, one of the areas affected by last year’s typhoon. Here he will celebrate a Mass at the airport and have lunch with some of the survivors from the Archdiocese of Palo. In the afternoon, he will bless the ‘Pope Francis Centre for the Poor’. This will be followed by a meeting at the local cathedral with the local clergy as well as typhoon survivors and their families. In the evening, he will travel back to Manila.
On Sunday 18 January, the pontiff will take part in three events: a brief meeting with religious leaders at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, a meeting with young people on the university’s sports field, and in the afternoon Mass at Manila’s huge Rizal Park.
The next morning, the Holy Father will leave for Rome. The Philippines has been received three previous papal visits: Pope Paul VI in 1970, Pope John Paul II in 1981 and 1995. (H.J.M.)