Pope Francis in Malacañang for meeting with Aquino

Natashya Gutierrez
Pope Francis is welcomed to Malacañang and accorded the same formalities given to heads of state as the head of the Vatican
PALACE WELCOME. President Benigno Aquino III kisses the hand of Pope Francis upon the pontiff’s arrival in Malacañang grounds on January 16, 2015.
MANILA, Philippines – It was just like welcoming a diplomat, except this head of state is extraordinarily popular – even among members of the government.

On Friday, January 16, President Benigno Aquino III welcomed Pope Francis to Malacañang not just as head of the Catholic Church but also as head of state of the Vatican.

Upon his arrival at the Malacañang Palace grounds at 9:21 am on Friday, the Pope was greeted by Aquino who led him to their respective areas for the official welcome ceremony at the Palace grounds, which had been fitted with red carpet befitting the state guest.

After the arrival honors, the President introduced his full Cabinet to the Holy Father, followed by the introduction of the 14-member papal delegation to the Philippine leader.

About 200 Malacañang employees and their families, as well as students, were given the chance to see the pontiff up close in the cordoned off area on the side of the  Palace grounds.

Aquino led the Argentinian pontiff to Malacañang Palace – a walk that took longer as some children and women with infants were allowed to approach the pontiff – where he signed the Palace guest book before being with presented gifts.

This will be followed by a private conversation between Aquino and the Pope – much like bilateral meetings with other heads of state – at the Palace’s Music Room.

The two leaders will then enter Rizal Ceremonial Hall to meet with civil authorities, Cabinet members, and the diplomatic corps. Expected to be in the general audience are a total of 450 guests, including about 10 senators and 10 members of the House of Representatives.

JOYFUL EVENT. Malacañang employees, some with their families, wave Philippine flags to welcome Pope Francis on January 16, 2015.

Aquino and the Pope will then deliver their speeches – both in English. The Pope is expected to depart Malacañang at 10:45 am.

Francis was again welcomed by cheering crowds who lined the roads from the Apostolic Nunciature to Malacañang Palace.

‘Hands-on’ 

The papal visit to the Philippines will be the first in 20 years. Francis will only be the 3rd pope to ever visit the country since 1970.

Security preparations by the government have been in full force, with the President himself taking a “hands-on” approach, Palace officials have said. Aquino himself made last-minute inspections Tuesday evening, participating in the a run-through of the motorcade from Villamor Airbase, where Francis was to arrive, to the Apostolic Nunciature where he will be staying.

“The President has always said that he is never satisfied. It’s always a constant improving of the security situation and the security preparations…. He made some observations. Again, those observations will be part of the inputs to the security preparations,” Presidential Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said on the eve of the visit.

Lacierda added, “So we’ll try to keep on improving the security situation, the security preparations every day, and making sure that we’ve done our best; we’ve done everything humanly possible to ensure the security of the Pope as well as the crowd.”

HANDS-ON. President Benigno Aquino III is deeply involved in the preparations for the papal visit. Malacañang Photo Bureau

Lacierda also said the government is “very elated” that the Pope “has chosen the Philippines to visit.” About 80% of the 100-million Philippine population identifies as Catholic.

“Our government, we’re very happy every time there’s a head of state who visits us. It’s an acknowledgment of the role that our country has made in the world’s stage. But as a pastor, of course, Pope Francis would like to visit us because this is the country, I think, the only country in Asia, which has a majority of Christians and Catholics,” he said.

“And this is also an opportunity for the Pope to visit not only Catholics but also [to make] an engagement. It will also be an opportunity for non-Catholics, non-Catholic Christians, to come and see the Pope as well.”

Policy talk?

In past papal visits to the Philippines, Pope Paul VI  in 1970, and Pope John Paul II in 1981 and 1995, made comments on state affairs, from praising the influence of the church on public policy, to criticizing Martial Law.

Francis, known for his blunt frankness, may do the same – something the administration says it is open to.

“Whatever message the Pope chooses to impart, he will do so based on his discretion and we will certainly listen to the Pope as, primarily, the shepherd of the Catholic Church. And so, certainly, we will take note of and listen to Pope Francis’ message,” Lacierda said.

The President had also said he was not thinking negatively when asked whether he was concerned whether the Pope would mention anything about corruption – which has been a longtime issue in the Philippines and the Aquino administration, under its good governance focus, has tried to eliminate.

SPEAKING OUT. Pope John Paul II spoke out against the dictatorship of former president Ferdinand Marcos in his presence. File photo from papalvisit.ph

“Any fair assessment will say: Of course, we have our challenges; we’re still dealing with the Yolanda aftermath; we still have to deal with Ruby. But I think from four and a half years ago, we’ve made many gains,” he said.

Aquino has said he plans to thank the Pope for reviving the church.

“This Pope was able to bring back the concept of being a pastor for his flock, hasn’t he? He isn’t distant, he isn’t ignorant of what his flock is going through. This Pope, he really personifies the concept of taking care of his flock,” he said. 

Aquino added, “I will likely thank him in the end for inspiring many that the church they are part of is very much alive, as opposed to [a church] that is divorced with society.”

The President said he would also likely take up with Francis the state of the church in the Philippines and ways to promote the “Kingdom of God” during his presidency. (READ: ‘How can a book destroy the Church?’)

Palace Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr on Thursday, however, slightly contradicted the statement and gave assurances Aquino would speak to the Pope as president, and not as a Catholic.

“The President is the president of all the Filipino people. When he talks tomorrow one-on-one with His Holiness the Pope, that will be his mindset; that he is the elected leader of all Filipinos and the Filipino nation is not totally composed of only Catholics,” Coloma said.

He added there is no set agenda for the conversation but said, “as it is customary, whenever the President meets with a head of state, he expresses to his counterpart the sentiments of the people, and this becomes especially relevant because our visitor is not just the head of a state, he is also the head of the Church, to which a great majority of our people belong.”

“So we could expect that the theme of his visit, ‘Mercy and Compassion,’ will find resonance in the topics that the two leaders might discuss as this relate to the issues facing our people,” he added.

The Pope will be in Philippines until January 19, Monday.  Rappler.com