Pope Francis will on Thursday immerse himself in the Catholic Church’s passionate and chaotic Asian heartland when he lands in the Philippines for a five-day trip that is tipped to attract a world-record papal crowd.
The charismatic pontiff will fly into the capital of Manila from Sri Lanka, where a million worshippers gathered to watch him canonise that nation’s first saint and listen to a homily on religious tolerance.
Francis has said his two-nation tour is aimed at adding momentum to already impressive growth for the Church in Asia, with its support in the Philippines the benchmark for the rest of the region.
Eighty percent of the former Spanish colony’s 100 million people practise a famously fervent brand of Catholicism, and the pope is set to enjoy thunderously enthusiastic crowds throughout his stay.
“Every step he makes, every car ride he takes, every moment he stays with us is precious for us,” Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, said as he called on all Filipinos to make an effort to see him.
“Seeing him pass by is a grace. Waving our hands at him in loving welcome is an experience of a lifetime.”
Hundreds of thousands of people gathered on Thursday along the route the pope was scheduled to pass after touching down in Manila at about dusk, hoping to get a first glimpse of the pontiff.
“It’s a blessing to see the pope. That’s why we’re here,” school teacher Jeannie Blesado, 35, told AFP as she sat alongside the route more than six hours before the pope was to pass by.
– Open-air mass –
The high-point of his trip is expected to be an open-air mass on Sunday at a park in Manila, with organisers preparing for up to six million people despite a forecast of rain and security concerns.
Organisers have said that, if the crowd is as big as expected, it will surpass the previous record for a papal gathering of five million during a mass by John Paul II at the same venue in 1995.
Francis, who will be making the fourth papal visit to the Philippines, is also due to visit communities devastated by Super Typhoon Haiyan, which killed or left missing 7,350 people in 2013.
Church officials have said one of the main reasons for Francis wanting to visit the Philippines was to make a “mercy and compassion” trip to meet survivors of the typhoon.
On Saturday, he is scheduled to deliver a mass to tens of thousands of people in Tacloban, one of the worst-hit cities in the central Philippines, and have an intimate lunch with 30 typhoon survivors.
The main scheduled events on Friday included a state welcome at the presidential palace, a mass at Manila Cathedral and a meeting at a shopping mall with thousands of families.
Authorities have expressed major concerns over the pope’s security in the Philippines, where attempts have been made to kill visiting pontiffs twice before.
Nearly 40,000 soldiers and police are being deployed to protect the pontiff in what Philippine military chief General Gregorio Catapang described as a “security nightmare”.
– Security concerns –
Potential stampedes from the giant crowds, as well as the threat of Islamic militants or lone-wolf assailants are among the concerns.
On the first papal visit to the Philippines in 1970, Bolivian painter Benjamin Mendoza donned a fake priest’s cassock and swung a knife at Pope Paul VI as he arrived at Manila airport.
Paul VI was wounded but continued his trip without disclosing his injury.
One week before John Paul II’s 1995 visit, police uncovered a plot by foreign Islamist extremists to kill him by bombing his Manila motorcade route.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino made a nationally televised address on Monday specifically to highlight the security threats for the pope and call on all Filipinos to help protect him.
“I ask you, do you want history to record that a tragedy involving the pope happened in the Philippines,” Aquino said.
Adding to the concerns, the 78-year-old pontiff has insisted he will not travel in a bullet-proof “popemobile” during his big events so he can be closer to the faithful.
The pope flew out of Sri Lanka on Thursday morning, a day after one million people gathered to hear him give mass in what police said was the biggest public celebration ever for the capital of Colombo.
His visit, which began on Tuesday, came days after an election that exposed bitter divisions on the island and saw the surprise victory of Maithripala Sirisena over strongman president Mahinda Rajapakse.
Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith said the pope had brought “great joy” to the island as it struggled to recover from civil war.