MANILA - The much-awaited visit of Pope Francis to the Philippines might reinvigorate the country's Catholic Church, which has suffered widespread disillusionment in recent years.
Roman Catholics comprise around 80 percent of the population in the Philippines, making it the largest Catholic nation in Asia, but church attendance fell from 64 percent in 1991 to 37 percent in 2013, according to sociologist Jayeel Cornelio.
Cornelio, who is the director of developmental studies at Ateneo de Manila University, attributes this fall to young people being hungry for more genuine expressions of their faith, a void that Pope Francis's visit may help fill.
"You have a broken church, that presents itself as a strong church in this country; and then you've got a strong leader in Pope Francis who is happy to be vulnerable. And I think many young people would find that a more authentic expression of their Catholicity," Cornelio told Reuters.
Observers say a watershed moment for the Philippine Catholic Church was the passage into law of the Reproductive Health bill, which ensures sexual education and contraceptives are made widely available to the public.
Church authorities aggressively fought against the legislation, arguing that it violated God's design for procreation, and that poverty was not a result of overpopulation.
Surveys showed 70 percent of the population supported the bill, and many were disappointed that Catholic bishops virulently opposed it, going so far as branding senatorial candidates who supported the legislation as "Team Death".
"In reality, many families living in urban poor conditions have a lot of children and many of them would want to avail of basic contraceptives and sexuality education - which simply were not matched by the, if I may say, condescending rhetoric from the Catholic church, as if the problem was only moral," Cornelio said.
Priest Arlo Yap from Society of the Divine Word is adamant that the law is not what would help families cope with poverty. Instead, he echoes the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines' call for the government to distribute resources equitably.
"If the government will effectively address the poverty problem in the Philippines, and the corruption issues, the RH (Reproductive Health) Bill becomes obsolete," Yap said.
Seeing the Reproductive Health Law as a triumph, secular groups are gearing up for their next possible battle with the church: divorce.
The Philippines is the only country in the world where divorce is not legal, and church officials have indicated they will not buckle down from opposing any bill.
"In the Church, we acknowledge the family as the 'domestic church'. It is written in 'Lumen Gentium'. Whereas in the government, the family is also acknowledged as the basic unit of society. So in other words, there's a particular image of the family as sacred, as something whole," Yap said.
The Catholic Church in the country has certainly not shied away from politics.
When Manila archbishop Jaime Sin urged Catholics in 1986 to take to the streets and join the revolution against Ferdinand Marcos, nuns and priests joined activists in stopping tanks from attacking the dictator's foes. Sin's anointed one, widow Corazon Aquino, would soon rise to power.
In 2001, a similar scene unfolded, when the papal nuncio and a cardinal flanked President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in support of her presidency, to replace ousted leader Joseph Estrada.
The 78-year-old Pope, however, who is returning to Asia for the second time in less than six months, represents an alternative brand of Catholicism, according to Cornelio.
The Pope's acts of humility and receptive statements to sectors traditionally frowned upon by the Roman Catholic Church - such as homosexuality, unwed mothers and even atheists - are in tune with more liberal attitudes among Filipino youth, he said.
Having arrived in Sri Lanka on Tuesday (January 13), Pope Francis will be travelling to the Philippines later in the week to underscore his concern for inter-religious dialogue, poverty and the environment.
Security will be a main issue in both countries, but particularly in the Philippines, Asia's only majority Catholic country, where up to six million people are expected to attend an outdoor Mass on January 18.