Looking back: The visits of Paul VI and John Paul II
Dressed as a priest with a crucifix, the would-be-assassin shouting “death to superstition” approached the Pope as he walked the line at the Manila airport and lunged a dagger to his chest. The pope would have suffered a mortal wound had the blow not been parried by his personal secretary. The would-be assassin, a Bolivian self-styled surrealist artist was subdued and arrested. At the time of the assassination attempt, Pope Paul VI was in Manila for a pastoral visit.
In 1970, the first pope visited the Philippines and the Far East. One media person within arms-length of the assassin was later told by a ranking official to float the story that it was President Marcos who delivered the karate chop that immobilized the attacker and the First Lady Imelda Marcos who picked up the dagger.
The assassin himself signed a statement one month after the episode, claiming that Marcos had physically prevented him from killing the pope. Observers would say that Marcos was too far away from the pope to do as he claimed and the Pope’s personal secretary, Msgr Pasquale Macchi, could himself attest that it was not so.
Marcos had every reason to spin the tall tale if only to ingratiate himself with the increasingly restive Filipinos. At the time of the pope’s visit in August 1970, the Philippines was reeling from violent leftist demonstrations, rising oil prices, rumors of martial law, a sex scandal involving the president, and two super typhoons. The country was in economic crisis in large part because of the profligate spending by Marcos to win re-election.
Luis Cardinal Tagle, then a 13-year-old boy and now the archbishop of Manila, laments that people only remember the Pope Paul VI visit for the assassination attempt. He fondly recalls that the Pope, despite his hectic schedule, met with various groups from the laity, various communities, university students, as well as with the bishops of Asia, headed by then Manila Archbishop Rufino Cardinal Santos.
During his reception at the Malacañang Palace, the Pope said: “The object of our visit to Manila is of the spiritual order; it has an apostolic character. Great would be our joy if by our visit the Catholic people were made firm in their faith and in the sincere and coherent expression of it.”
The visit of Pope John Paul II to the Philippines to preside over World Youth Day of 1995 was marred by a similar attempt when foreign terrorists with a distorted sense of Islam planned to detonate a bomb, while the Pope’s motorcade was on its way to the San Carlos Seminary in Makati City. The plot was later abandoned after an apartment in Manila occupied by the plotters caught fire before Pope John Paul II could visit the country on January 12. This was supposed to be his second visit to the Philippines, visiting earlier in 1981 to beatify several martyrs, including St Lorenzo Ruiz, the Philippines’ first saint.
When Pope John Paul II came for his first papal visit, the Marcos dictatorship was at its height. Earlier the first local elections since the declaration of martial law were held, with the party Kilusang Bagong Lipunan winning the majority of the seats. At the turn of the decade, the country was plagued by a prolonged recession and a separatist insurgency. Corruption and nepotism compounded poor economic performance. Poverty was widespread. To placate the Catholic Church before the visit of Pope John Paul II, Marcos officially lifted martial law on January 17, 1981.
The Filipinos showed their immense appreciation for Pope John Paul II, chanting “Mabuhay” and “Viva il Papa” at the old Manila International Airport. The Polish-born Pontiff answered back – “The Filipino people are never far from my mind and heart.”
Hundreds of thousands lined the streets from the airport to Roxas Boulevard, Quirino Avenue, and the Apostolic Nunciature on Taft Avenue to welcome him. At the holy Mass for the beatification of Blessed, now St Lorenzo Ruiz, Pope John Paul extolled the heroism of the 16 faithful martyrs “by the exercise of their priesthood – that of baptism or of Holy Orders – performed the greatest act of worship and love of God by the sacrifice of their blood united with Christ's own Sacrifice of the Cross. In this way they imitated Christ the priest and victim in the most perfect way possible for human creatures...”
He counseled the poor not to “be tempted by ideologies that preach only material values or purely temporal ideals.” He said, “The road toward your total liberation is not the way of violence, class struggle or hate.”
Amidst the pomp and cheering crowd, His Holiness said, “The poor and those discriminated against identify more easily with Christ, for in him they discover one of their own.” He went on to praise those “poor in spirit,” such as “the rich man who does not close his heart but faces up to the intolerable situations that perpetuate the poverty and misery of those who are constantly hungry and deprived of their rightful chances to grow and develop their human potential.” All the time President Marcos and his wife Imelda were seated listening contentedly beside the Pope on a specially-built stage.
World Youth Day
In 1995, some 3 million people lined the streets to welcome Pope John Paul II when he arrived to preside over the celebration of World Youth Day. An estimated 4 million attended the Mass at the Luneta, the largest gathering ever. The pope addressed the youth and invited them “…to [s]ee the world around you with the eyes of Jesus himself! The Gospel says that when he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
He met with then president Fidel Ramos at Malacañang and later celebrated Mass for the 233 delegates of the International Youth Forum at the Central Seminary Chapel of the University of Sto Tomas (UST). He also gave a 20-minute speech to some 200,000 cheering students and academicians gathered at the UST Grandstand and Parade Grounds.
In a private meeting with members of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, the Pope made the “strongest comments” defending the Catholic ban on artificial contraceptives. He also condemned injustice in the country and noted the “increasing” gap between rich and poor. He made clear: “When powerful interests promote policies which are against the moral law inscribed on the human heart, they offend the dignity of man who is made in the image and likeness of God,” “In doing so, they undermine the foundations of society itself,” he added.
Both pontiffs served faithfully the Church which they loved most. Pope Paul VI will be remembered as the Great Helmsman of the Second Vatican Council because of his efforts to implement the reform goals of the ecumenical council. Beatifying Blessed Paul VI at the concluding Mass of the Synod of Bishops on the family, Pope Francis praised the late pope as a “humble and prophetic witness of love for Christ and his church.”
St. Pope John Paul II was great in life as well as in death. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said of him: “Everyone knows John Paul II: his face, his characteristic way of moving and speaking; his immersion in prayer and his spontaneous cheerfulness. Many of his words have become indelibly engraved in our memories, starting with the passionate cry with which he introduced himself to the people at the beginning of his pontificate: ‘Open wide the doors to Christ, and be not afraid of him!’ Or this saying: ‘No one can live a trial life; no one can love experimentally.’ An entire pontificate is condensed in words like these. It is as though he would like to open the doors for Christ everywhere and wishes to open up to people the gate that leads to true life, to true love.”
The Filipino faithful have good memories of the pastoral of these two popes, both holy, heroic and virtuous. They loved Filipinos, who gratefully returned this love to them. God truly blessed us with their presence, and most of all because in seeing them, we were brought closer to Jesus Christ. No doubt, this is what we will experience with the coming of Pope Francis.
As Ateneo de Davao President Fr Joel Tabora SJ commented in my timeline, following my reposting of his homily last Sunday, the Philippines is indeed in a season of grace. – Rappler.com