Why expectations are high for Pope Francis in the Philippines

Fueling the fervor surrounding Pope Francis’s trip the Southeast Asian nation is the hope that his presence will spur leaders into tackling corruption, and enforce lasting change.

Bulilit Marquez/AP Photo
Youth and students display placards and tarpaulin posters of Pope Francis after throwing colored powder in the air at the start of the countdown to welcome the Pontiff Wednesday, Jan. 14 in Manila, Philippines. Student leader Einstein Recedes said they opted to use colored powder to highlight the festive nature of the Pope’s apostolic visit. In their statement, Recedes said "the nation must indeed celebrate, for here is a Pope who champions the poor."

In the weeks leading up to Pope Francis’s five-day visit to the Philippines, the atmosphere has been festive, almost frenzied.

The pope’s smiling image has been stamped on every imaginable souvenir – shirts, coins, coffee mugs, posters, even limited-edition dolls – all of them for sale. Boys dressed in the Vatican Swiss Guards’ blue, white, and gold uniforms are expected to greet the pontiff upon his arrival on Jan. 15. An original musical, loosely based on Pope Francis’ life and whose cast includes real Filipino priests, has been running since December.

Security has been beefed up: A no-fly zone has been declared to make sure the papal plane arrives safely, Al Jazeera reported. Special forces usually assigned to Philippine president Benigno Aquino III have been tasked to protect the pope, the same report said. Would-be attendees of the papal mass in the nation’s capital Sunday have, as an additional security measure, been banned from bringing bags and umbrellas.

About 6 million people are expected at the open-air service, according to reports.

It’s not unusual for the pope to be received with a lot of pomp and excitement. But much of the fervor surrounding the pope’s visit to the Philippines could be attributed to Francis himself – a man who has gained support by choosing action over rhetoric (though he certainly has said some quotable things).

This is especially relevant in a country where, while more than 80 percent of the population considers itself Roman Catholic and religious values are closely twined with societal norms, corruption continues to run rampant

“[A] lack of religious fervor is not one of our problems,” reporter Howie Severino wrote in an op-ed for local network GMA News. “What is glaringly obvious is that our society does not practice what has been preached by many generations of priests on our shores.”

The Philippines ranks 85th out of 175 countries in a global corruption perception index, according to Transparency International.

Severino goes on to say that he hopes the pope will take time during his visit to address such issues as climate change, torture, and the faults of the clergy.

And Severino is not alone in his opinions: Youth groups have echoed his sentiment.

“Hopefully, it [the papal visit] boosts the moral standards of Filipinos, that they would start standing up for what is right. Hopefully, the corrupt Catholic officials would be moved by the pope,” Rob Guevarra, a Christian youth pastor and campus missionary, told local news organization The Philippine Star.

Other groups have been more direct: “Help us, dear Pope, as we battle against inequality, as we fight for education, better social services, and for peace and unity in our nation fraught with war,” read an open letter from youth organization led by the Student Christian Movement of the Philippines.

On its official news site, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines also cited tweets and social media posts that expressed Filipinos’ hope that the pope's presence catalyzes change in the country’s political and economic landscape.

And in a tangible mark of the people’s belief in the pope’s ability to spur action, 500 political prisoners and their families – hoping to gain Pope Francis’s support against the country’s justice system – have been on a hunger strike since Jan. 10, according to a report by news site Rappler.com.

“I don’t know how to speak English but I’m pleading for Pope Francis to support our struggle for justice for those in prison,” one protester, speaking in Tagalog, told Rappler.

At the same time, the pope’s visit is expected to reinvigorate what is increasingly perceived as the waning influence of the Catholic Church in the Philippines. Weekly church attendance among Catholics has dropped from 64 percent in 1991 to 37 percent in 2013, according to a report by the Social Weather Stations, a Philippine survey institute.

And 70 percent of the population approves that President Aquino, against the Church’s indignant protests, signed the country’s first reproductive health bill into law in 2012. Although abortion and divorce remain illegal in the Philippines, some say that the triumph of the RH bill calls to question the Church’s power in the country.

"You have a broken church that presents itself as a strong church in this country,” Jayeel Cornelio, director of developmental studies at the Jesuit university Ateneo de Manila University, told Reuters. “And then you've got a strong leader in Pope Francis who is happy to be vulnerable. And I think many young people would find that a more authentic expression of their Catholicity.”

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