Pope: Poor, Yolanda victims, OFWs center of PH trip
MANILA, Philippines – It’s not the massive crowds, rock star welcome, flash mob, or Manila’s VIPs that matter most to Pope Francis as he visits the largest Catholic nation in Asia.
To the leader known for his simplicity and emphasis on the “peripheries,” the center of his 5-day visit to the Philippines is the country’s poor, primarily those struggling to recover from the world’s most powerful storm to hit land.
On his way to Manila on Thursday, January 15, the Pope gave a wide-ranging press conference aboard the papal plane that hit headlines globally for his new comments on the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. (READ: Pope Francis: You 'cannot insult' other people's religion)
Yet what Vatican correspondents described as “perhaps the most heartfelt moment” of the briefing was the pope’s response to a question from Filipino journalist Pia Hontiveros of 9News about his message to the many Filipinos who wish to see him but are unable to.
Responding slowly, Francis said, “My response to the question risks being overly simple. I will say a word.”
“The central message of this trip will be the poor, the poor who want to carry on, the poor who suffered from Typhoon Yolanda and who are still suffering the consequences, the poor who have faith and hope.”
The pontiff was referring to the people of Eastern Visayas devastated in the wake of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) that flattened the region on November 8, 2013. Over a year since the disaster, many are still struggling to recover, and to find permanent shelter and livelihood.
Francis will get to meet some of them, including the children, when he visits Tacloban City and the town of Palo in Leyte on Saturday.
“The people of God, the poor, even the exploited poor, those who suffer many injustices, material, spiritual and existential. I’ll think of them when I’m in the Philippines,” he said.
Francis’ message is a poignant reminder as the so-called “pope mania” hits the Philippines, a country where 80 million or 80% of the population are Catholic, many of whom are passionately devout.
So intense is the fervor for Francis’ visit that pope merchandise is selling fast, the government declared holidays in the capital Manila, flights were cancelled on the same afternoon of Francis’ arrival on Thursday, and even banks, telecommunication companies and the stock market’s operations are affected.
Francis will be in the Philippines from January 15 to 19, and his Mass at the Rizal Park in Manila on Sunday is expected to draw one of the largest crowds for a papal event.
‘Filipinos forced to leave families for work’
Besides storm victims, Francis also touched on a key segment of Philippine society: overseas Filipino workers, known locally as OFWs.
Francis said that he met some Filipinos at the Vatican guesthouse of Santa Marta a few days ago.
“I looked at the Filipino employees, [and they told me] how they left their county to look for a better life, leaving behind mother, father, and children. The poor will be the focus,” he stressed.
The pope said the OFWs he met were attending a party that Ethiopians hosted to celebrate the Nativity by Eastern Churches.
Francis will hear the stories of Filipino families separated by migration when he meets them at the Mall of Asia (MOA) Arena in Pasay City on Friday.
Organizers said the Pope specifically requested to have “eye contact” with Filipino families to have “a real personal encounter.”
The Filipino Catholic Church identified “forced separation due to migration” as one of the pressing challenges families face.
As of 2012, the Philippine government said there were 10.49 million OFWs, meaning about one out of every 10 Filipinos works abroad.
Manila Archbishop Antonio Luis Cardinal Tagle said, “In the Philippines, many married couples separate not because they hate each other. They choose separation because of their love for their family. And they bear the pain of separation just to find jobs elsewhere.”
“What pastoral care should we provide for our OFWs so that they will remain faithful to their families left back home? And on the other hand, what can we do for those left behind so that they too remain faithful to their spouses or their parents who are abroad?”
Pope Francis can relate to the migrant experience. His own family left Italy for Argentina in the early 20th century. (READ: Pope Francis in the eyes of the Filipino)
He repeatedly calls for “the elimination of prejudices and presuppositions” in addressing migration, highlighting the need for policies protecting migrants from North Africa and the Middle East who drown on the way to Europe in search for a better life. – Ayee Macaraig/Rappler.com