Pope chooses Visayas as core of Philippine trip

MANILA, Philippines – Philippine bishops confirmed on Monday, July 7, that Pope Francis “clearly” wants to visit earthquake and typhoon survivors in the Visayas as the “main objective” of his Philippine trip in January 2015.

This will mark the first time in 3 decades – only the second time ever – for a pope to go beyond the Philippines' capital, Manila, as the first Latin American pontiff vows to reach out to the world's “peripheries.”

In a statement, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) said Francis “has clearly laid out his wish that the main objective of his visit is to bring Christ's compassion for our suffering people still struggling to rise from the devastations wrought by the earthquake and typhoon that hit the Visayas.”

The Pope's visit comes a year after a magnitude-7.2 earthquake that devastated Central Visayas, especially Bohol, and Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) that killed more than 6,000 people, mostly in Tacloban City in Eastern Visayas. (READ: Yolanda, quake areas may 'define' Pope's Philippine trip)

When asked if it is safe to say the Pope's visit will not be Manila-centric, CBCP president Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas told reporters, “Yes, certainly, he will go to Tacloban.”

Francis to pass by Manila

Based on official itineraries published by the Vatican, the last time a pope went beyond Manila was in 1981, or 33 years ago.

Back then, the late Pope John Paul II stayed in the Philippines for 6 days – from February 17 to 22 – and visited Cebu, Davao, Bacolod, Iloilo, Legazpi, Bataan, and Baguio aside from Manila.

John Paul did not leave Manila when he visited the Philippines from January 12 to 16, 1995. The late Pope Paul VI, the first pontiff to visit the Southeast Asian country, also remained in the capital during his Philippine trip from November 27 to 29, 1970.

Villegas said Francis, the third pope to visit the Philippines, will also definitely pass by Manila because of its international airport.

He refused to divulge more details, however, as he advised reporters to wait for the official advisory from Vatican City.

'PREPARING THE NATION.' Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, and Pasig Bishop Mylo Hubert Vergara hold a news conference on preparations for Pope Francis' Philippine trip. Photo by Roy Lagarde/Rappler

'PREPARING THE NATION.' Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, and Pasig Bishop Mylo Hubert Vergara hold a news conference on preparations for Pope Francis' Philippine trip.

Photo by Roy Lagarde/Rappler

In a news conference with Villegas and other Catholic Church officials, Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle said the Vatican will announce the date of the Pope's visit by the end of July or first week of August.

The Vatican will release the detailed plan or schedule of the Pope's trip probably in November, Tagle added.

To fix these plans, Vatican representatives flew to Manila and Tacloban a few days earlier to check the sites that Francis will possibly visit.

Pope's lung also a concern

While also declining to disclose more details, Tagle, at least, said Francis has made 3 major requests regarding his visit.

Tagle said Francis – known for his frugal lifestyle that includes living in a Vatican guesthouse – “wants the visit to be really pastoral and simple.”

He also “wants to encounter people who suffered” – the same thing he did during his first official trip outside Rome, when he visited migrants in Lampedusa, Southern Italy, and slammed the “globalization of indifference.”

Other considerations involve the Pope's age and medical condition. The Pope is turning 78 in December. And doctors removed part of his lungs around 40 years ago because of a “pulmonary illness,” as the Vatican confirmed.

Because of these, Tagle said, “we have to consider also his movements and the timeline.”

For the Philippine bishops, however, the most important factor is the “underlying spirit of this papal visit” – “the theme of 'mercy and compassion, the cherished ideals of Jesus.”

“Our compassionate shepherd comes to show his deep concern for our peple who have gone through devastating calamities, especially in the Visayas. He comes to confirm us in our faith as we face the challenges of witnessing to the Joy of the Gospel in the midst of trials,” Villegas said in a pastoral letter signed on behalf of the CBCP. (READ: Pope to PH: Don't get tired of mercy)

“And the Pope brings hope to our excluded Philippines,” Villegas said. “He brings a message to the poor among us.” – Rappler.com

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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