MANILA - "Pope Francis is a pope of surprises. Be ready for surprises."
That's how Fr. Aris Sison, Rector of The Immaculate Concepcion Cathedral of Cubao, described the country's "most wanted guest" come January 2015.
But months after the Vatican confirmed the visit to the Philippines, little is known about the itinerary of Pope Francis, previously known as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires.
What is certain is that he will meet victims of two major calamities that devastated the country last year, both of biblical proportions--supertyphoon Yolanda, which battered Eastern Visayas and left over 6,000 people dead; and a 7.2-magnitude earthquake in Bohol that killed over 200 people.
The Pope will also visit Manila and is expected to spend time with the poor, said Sison, easily one of millions of Filipinos eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Pontiff in January.
SNEAKING OUT OF VATICAN
“(The Pope) is known to sneak out of the Vatican at night, to visit the poor and give them food, to talk to them, to listen to them,” Sison told ABS-CBN News in an interview. “He has stopped the pope mobile (in other foreign visits) because he saw a priest he recognized, because he wanted to touch a boy who is sick. Who knows what he will stop for when he is here?”
Tita de Villa, former Philippine ambassador to the Vatican, said Pope Francis seems more affectionate than the other popes she has come face to face with, citing news coverages showing Pope Francis frequently embracing and kissing children, the sick, the poor, the elderly and the disfigured.
“Makikita mo naman, yung ‘inakap nyang mama na may bukol. Kahit ako matatakot ako, pero s’ya, he acted like it’s the most natural thing to do--to embrace that man,” de Villa said. “He’s saying, pare-pareho ang dignity ng mga tao, kahit mahirap o may sakit. He shows us what active mercy means: Go out and do something for that person. Hindi lang yung sabihing, ay nakakaawa. Naaawa ka? Gumawa ka ng something para mapalitan ang sitwasyon ng person na yan,” she said.
But there are those who hope the Pope will also speak out against those who abuse power.
“He has spoken up in the past against inequality, ‘yung grievances ng maliliit na tao,” said veteran activist Satur Ocampo. “’Yung problema ng human rights violations at extrajudicial killings, disappearances, ‘yung torture ay nagpapatuloy pa din yan. Kung gumawa ng public statement ang Pope, malaking impact ‘yun.”
If the Pontiff does speak out, it wouldn’t be the first time for a visiting pope.
COMPARING WITH POPE JOHN PAUL II
When Pope John Paul II arrived in the Philippines in 1981 after a decade marked by violent anti-government protests and human rights abuses, he told a reception hosted by President Marcos that a legitimate concern for the security of a nation could lead to “subjugating” the human being and his or her dignity and rights.
“(The Pope) comforted us and at the same time, John Paul had the courage to tell the government, to speak against human rights abuses,” Sison said.
The Pope later called on Filipino landowners to ensure just wages for workers.
"Landowners should not let themselves be guided by selfish accumulation of goods. The worker is entitled to wages that give him a just share in the wealth he helps to produce," he told a gathering of hacienderos and sugarcane workers during a visit to Bacolod on February 20, 1981.
The Pope reiterated this message in Legazpi City the following day. "Justice requires that workers be paid a wage that is sufficient to maintain their families with human dignity,” he said. He assured rice farmers the Church was on their side: “You can be sure that your Pope is with you on this issue."
Neither did Pope John Paul hesitate to make known his displeasure over the government’s population management program when he returned to the Philippines in 1995. "The Church cannot but strenuously oppose all measures directed at promoting abortion, sterilization and also contraception," he told a gathering of Bishops at the Episcopal Conference of the Philippines on January 14, 1995.
President Fidel Ramos and Health Secretary Juan Flavier had advocated artificial birth control as part of a population management program aimed at strengthening the economy.
“The Pope respected President Ramos. It was not a question of Ramos being a Protestant, but the Pope affirmed Church teachings on this issue,” said Sison, then the spokesman for the Archdiocese of Manila.
“Ang sabi ng marami, he was a very political pope,” said De Villa. “Kaya lang si Pope, magaling siya eh. He knows how to use the right words, the right example without disrespecting the person he wants to give the message to.”
No scathing statements were made when another Pope, Paul VI, visited the Philippines in 1970. He was the first Pontiff in the history of the Catholic Church to ever travel to the Philippines and the Far East, but his visit too came at a turbulent time in Philippine history.
“1970 started with a bang,” recalled former Manila Chronicle reporter Alex Allan. “Activism was at its height. (In) the elections in ’69, Ferdinand Marcos won an overwhelming victory, but there were charges of cheating. Students were protesting this, higher school fees, the economy going bad. The battle of Mendiola was the first big confrontation between government forces and student protesters. Six people were killed.”
“By 1970, may dalawang armed threats sa Marcos government,” said Ocampo. “’Yung sa CPP-NPA and Moro National Liberation Front. Ang propaganda ng gubyerno ni Marcos, ang mga aktibista ay inuudyukan ng Communist Party. “
That Papal visit, according to then Manila Archbishop Rufino Cardinal Santos, was being made to comfort a troubled flock. Pope Paul wanted “to see for himself the conditions of spiritual and socio-economic life in our country, to learn our problems so he may contribute to their solutions,” Santos wrote in the October-November 1970 issue of Home Life Magazine.
MARCOS-DOVIE BEAMS SEX SCANDAL
As the Church and government were in the thick of preparations, a sex scandal erupted just two weeks before the Pontiff’s arrival.
American actress Dovie Beams faced the media to divulge intimate details of her affair with Marcos, playing sex tapes for everyone to hear.
“Pinagpyestahan sa media at sa protest movement mismo,” said Ocampo. “Kasi lumaganap ‘yung tapes eh. Pineplay yung pag-kanta ni Marcos ng Pamulinawen. Galit na galit si Imelda.”
The sex tapes were all anyone could talk about for days.
Tongues only stopped wagging when super typhoon Yoling battered the country two weeks before Pope Paul’s arrival. It was the second super typhoon to hit the country in a span of one month. Hundreds died and thousands were left injured or homeless. Floodwaters submerged Central Luzon and some Rizal towns.
“The people were so down that (when the Pope came), there was an outpouring of love for him. He was seen as a savior: a savior from activism, from the economy, then here they are getting up from getting battered by two typhoons,” Allan said.
An estimated two million people welcomed Pope Paul along the streets of Metro Manila on November 27, 1970.
But the visit was marred by an attempt on his life by Bolivian artist Benjamin Mendoza, who broke past a thick security cordon by disguising himself as a priest.
The Vatican immediately ordered prayers in all Catholic churches around the world for the safe return of the Pope.
In 1995, the visit of Pope John Paul II would draw an even bigger crowd during the World Youth Day celebration. Some estimated as many as four million people turned up at the Mass held at the Luneta Park.
“It was the biggest crowd ever assembled for a papal event. Ever.” Sison said.
The visit of Pope Francis in January 2015 is expected to draw as many, or even more, as it comes at a time when many Filipinos are in need of prayers, mercy and compassion.
“Para sa (Papa), presence is important eh,” De Villa said. “Compassion for those who suffer means physical presence so he can bless them, embrace them.”
To see otherwise would be the big surprise.