Past popes and Philippine presidents

Natashya Gutierrez

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Past popes and Philippine presidents
Past popes have commented on state affairs in previous visits to the Philippines. Will Pope Francis, known for his blunt frankness, do the same?

MANILA, Philippines – When Pope Francis arrives in the Philippines on Thursday, January 15, he will not only arrive as the head of the Roman Catholic Church but also as the head of state of the Vatican.

After two decades, Pope Francis will only be the third pope to visit the most predominantly Catholic nation in Asia, following in the footsteps of his predecessors Blessed Pope Paul VI and Saint Pope John Paul II.

Past visiting popes were welcomed to Malacañang by presidents, and commented on state affairs. In the Philippines, the Catholic church – which boasts up to 80% of the country’s population as members – is perceived to wield much influence on government policies.

Rappler looks back at past papal visits to the Philippines as it prepares to welcome Francis to the country.

The first PH papal visit

FIRST POPE. Pope Paul VI visits the Philippines for the first time and meets former president Ferdinand Marcos in 1981. File photo from Marcos Presidential Center

Blessed Pope Paul VI was the first pope to set foot in the Philippines for a Vatican state visit from November 27-29, 1970. The Italian pope was received by the late president Ferdinand E. Marcos.

The state visit included a pastoral visit to Manila. During his trip, Paul VI officiated the first papal Mass in the Far East at the Manila Cathedral, as well as an open-air mass at Rizal Park.

Like Pope Francis, Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle said Paul VI came at a time when the Philippines was recovering from a typhoon. During his visit, Paul VI also made the rounds of the poorest sections of Manila, visiting the poor families in the district of Tondo.

“I felt two percussions on my chest but I didn’t think about a dagger.”

The Pope’s visit however was marred by an assassination attempt. Upon landing at the Manila International Airport, Paul VI, then 73, was stabbed twice by Benjamin Mendoza y Amor Flores, a Bolivian painter. Mendoza, dressed as a priest, approached Paul VI who mingled with the crowd, carrying a crucifix in one hand and a dagger with the other. He stabbed the Pope before he was held down and arrested.

Of the attack, Paul VI was quoted as saying, “I felt two percussions on my chest but I didn’t think about a dagger.” His doctor said he was stabbed just to the right and to left of the his jugular vein. Paul VI later said, he “forgave and forgot.”

Paul VI continued his visit, as planned. In his statement to Marcos, he said his visit to the country was an “apostolic” one.

“We would like to see strengthened their readiness to live in good understanding with all, to promote social development in the name of the charity of Christ whose witnesses they are, to prize the civic qualities of integrity, disinterestedness and equal service of all,” he said of Filipinos.

He also praised the Marcos leadership for its Church-tied public policy, saying, “We have been informed of the lofty and upright intentions which have inspired and still inspire the policies of your Government.” He did not give any specifics.

At the time, however, the government was already implementing its population control policy which advocated family planning methods not sanctioned by the Catholic church.

Pope John Paul II arrives

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

About 11 years after the first papal visit to the country, Saint John Paul II became the first pope to come to the Philippines on an official Vatican visit. He said he chose the destination himself.

“In my desire to know personally the peoples of Asia, I wanted my first papal visit to be to the Philippines. I come here retracing the steps of Paul Vl, whose memorable visit to this land is still recalled, I am sure, with love and gratitude, and whose inspiring presence still lives on in the hearts and the minds of the Filipino people,” he said in a statement to the Filipino people.

John Paul II was in the country from February 17-22, 1981, a 5-day visit that included pastoral visits to Manila, Cebu, Davao, Bacolod, Iloilo, Legazpi, and Baguio. During his stay, he also officiated the beatification of Lorenzo Ruiz, who later became the first-ever Philippine saint.

“Even in exceptional situations that may at times arise, one can never justify any violation of the fundamental dignity of the human person or of the basic rights that safeguard this dignity.” 

He was again welcomed to Malacañang by Marcos. The Polish pope’s visit was especially memorable because of his speech at the Palace. While he praised the government for its commitment to preserving “the indissolubility of the marriage bond” and the “right to life of the unborn child,” he also denounced the dictatorship of Marcos in his presence. Marcos had just lifted Martial Law in time for the visit, but still practiced authoritarian rule.

“Even in exceptional situations that may at times arise, one can never justify any violation of the fundamental dignity of the human person or of the basic rights that safeguard this dignity. Legitimate concern for the security of a nation, as demanded by the common good, could lead to the temptation of subjugating to the State the human being and his or her dignity and rights,” he said.

He added, “Any apparent conflict between the exigencies of security and of the citizens’ basic rights must be resolved according to the fundamental principle – upheld always by the Church – that social organization exists only fοr the service of man and for the protection of his dignity, and that it cannot claim to serve the common good when human rights are not safeguarded.”

The return of Pope John Paul II

LAST VISIT. President Fidel Ramos meets Pope John Paul II at the Villamor airbase in 1995. Photo by Noli Yamsuan

On his second visit to the Philippines, Saint John Paul II gathered the largest crowd recorded at that time, according to papal visit organizers, when 5 million mostly young people came to Rizal Park for the 10th World Youth Day.

The Polish pope was in the country from January 12-16, 1995, for a pastoral visit. He also paid a courtesy call to President Fidel V. Ramos at Malacañang Palace. 

The trip was less political in nature, and was focused on the youth gathering. At Rizal Park,  John Paul II acknowledged the youth’s “difficulties that previous generations experienced only partially and in a limited way,” citing “the weakness of much of family life, the lack of communication between parents and children, [and] the isolating and alienating influence of a large part of the media.”

He expressed optimism in the increasing focus on human rights which are “being codified and included in legislation both at national and international levels,” but reminded the youth that “the effective and guaranteed observance of respect for human dignity and human rights will be impossible if individuals and communities do not overcome self-interest, fear, greed and the thirst for power.” He encouraged them to follow the path of Christ.

Similar to Paul VI however, John Paul II was the subject of an assassination attempt, although Philippine authorities managed to thwart it before his arrival. Six days before John Paul II came to the Philippines, security officials foiled a plot to kill the Pope when they discovered a Malate apartment with bottles of chemical bomb components and a photo of the Pope. The apartment was occupied by by Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the first World Trade Center bombing in the US 1993.

John Paul II departed the Philippines unscathed.

Welcoming Pope Francis

THIRD POPE. Pope Francis is the third pope to visit the Philippines. File photos by Vincenzo Pinto and Jes Aznar/AFP

Pope Francis is scheduled to arrive in the Philippines on January 15. The popular head of the Vatican has been praised by observers for advocating a more progressive view on Church-related issues including homosexuality, atheists, and capitalism.

He is scheduled to meet with President Benigno Aquino III in Malacañang a day after his arrival but it remains to be seen whether, like his predecessors, the outspoken Pope will express any of his opinions on state policies.

Of his meeting with the Argentinian pontiff, Aquino has said he would thank him “for inspiring many that the Church they are part of is very much alive as opposed to [a church] that is divorced with society.” He also said he would likely discuss the state of the Church in the Philippines with Pope Francis, and ways to promote the “Kingdom of God” during his presidency. –

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Natashya Gutierrez

Natashya is President of Rappler. Among the pioneers of Rappler, she is an award-winning multimedia journalist and was also former editor-in-chief of Vice News Asia-Pacific. Gutierrez was named one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders for 2023.