Modern popes have made it a point to make the long journey to Catholic Philippines, bastion of Christianity in Southeast Asia, at least once in their pontificates. The country has so far been blessed with three papal visits in a span of 25 years. In 1970, Pope Paul VI (now Blessed) came as a missionary pope and visited the slums of Manila. A decade later, Pope St. John Paul II came to raise the Philippines’ proto-martyr, Lorenzo Ruiz, to the ranks of the “Blessed.” St. John Paul II returned in 1995 to dialogue with young people, and in the process drew the largest human gathering in history as he preached the message of Christ’s saving mission. For Filipinos, papal visits have been a source of joy, strength, and most importantly, hope.
Blessed Pope Paul VI | November 27-29, 1970
A Missionary Pope Preaches Christ to the Peoples of Asia
Blessed Paul VI in Manila (1970)
November of 1970 marked not only the first time a Pope visited the Philippines, but, more importantly, the first time the Vicar of Christ set foot on Southeast Asian soil. The last international voyage of His Holiness Blessed Pope Paul VI took him to nine countries and territories including Iran, Samoa, Australia, Indonesia, and Hong Kong.
In the Philippines, the Holy Father met the poor people of Manila, appealed for peace in Vietnam, and spoke to the laity, various communities, university students, and the episcopate of Asia led by Rufino Cardinal Santos. The Pope’s busy schedule included priestly ordinations at Luneta Park and the inauguration of Radio Veritas, the international Catholic shortwave radio station operated by the Asian Bishops’ Federation.
At his welcome reception in Malacañang, Blessed Paul VI underscored the spiritual nature of his Philippine visit.
“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 Holy Father said.
Blessed Paul VI in Manila (1970)
The entire Asian journey, however, was essentially a missionary one. In his radio address to the peoples of Asia via Radio Veritas, Paul VI said the mission of bringing Christ and his Church belongs not only to the clergy, but to the sons and daughters of the Church across the vast continent. “Christ is light and truth and life. And We proclaim him to you as he appears to our unshakeable faith,” the Holy Father said. “We are obedient to his charge, his command: Go, preach to all nations the good, the happy news, instructing them in my teaching of love and life. This we do, brothers and sisters, with humble love for you, with deep respect for you and for your ancient and venerable traditions.”
To the poor of Tondo, Manila, the Holy Father said the Church would continue to work tirelessly for their economic and social liberation as well as defend their God-given rights. While the desire to improve the temporal welfare is a lawful one, the Pope said the poor are also made for a higher good, the Kingdom of Heaven, and are called to be Christians.
First Communion with the Pope (Luneta, Nov. 28, 1970)
Paul VI meets the students of UST 2 (Nov. 28, 1970)
The hectic itinerary and Blessed Paul VI’s personal strength hid the fact that the Pope was wounded in the chest, on the very day of his arrival, by a 13-inch dagger wielded by an assassin. The attacker, a Bolivian painter dressed in clerical garb, was able to get close to the Holy Father whose flight had just landed at the Manila International Airport. The news that spread was that the Pope had escaped an assassination attempt. Paul VI proceeded with his full schedule. That the Pope was wounded was not revealed until nine years later.
“This brief stay in the Philippines has been a very great joy for us. We have lived through these days surrounded by the affection and the inexhaustible kindness of the Filipino people,” the Holy Father said in his farewell remarks on November 29, 1970. “It has been pur good fortune to experience their spirit of hospitality and the fervor of their religious faith, and also to catch a glimpse of their dynamism … We shall never forget the country of the Philippines. We shall pray for it.”
People gather outside Malacanang to catch a glimpse of the Pope
Pope John Paul II | February 17-22, 1981
The ‘Universal Pastor’ on a Pilgrimage to Asia
Christians should desire to serve than be served, says the Pope in Davao
The Holy Father goes on foot to the altar at Luneta Park
In 1981, the Philippines was blessed with its second papal visit, this time in the person of the energetic and charismatic Pope (later Saint) John Paul II. The trip to the Catholic bastion of the Far East was part of the newly elected Pontiff’s first Asian pilgrimage. The 21,000-mile, 12-day journey took the Pope to Pakistan, the Philippines, Guam, Japan, and Alaska.
The Philippine leg lasted six days and saw the Holy Father crisscrossing the archipelago, reinvigorating the faithful who took to heart his apostolic motto of devotion to the Blessed Mother and the Holy Trinity:“Totus Tuus” (Totally Yours). Aside from Manila, St. John Paul II travelled to Cebu, Davao, Bacolod, Iloilo, Legazpi, Morong, and Baguio. The centerpiece of the visit was the beatification of Lorenzo Ruiz (later, the first Filipino to become a saint) and his companions who were martyred in Nagasaki in 1637. It was the first beatification outside Rome.
“This is the full meaning of this beatification: to animate all the Christians of the Far East and to spread the word of the Lord,” the Holy Father said in his homily for the Holy Mass of Beatification on February 18, 1981. “In a special way I say this to you Filipinos, who form the only predominantly Catholic nation in the eastern part of the continent of Asia.”
The Pope arrives at Manila Cathedral
The Holy Father commemorated the fourth centenary of the See of Manila with the celebration of the Eucharist at the Manila Cathedral on the first day of his apostolic visit. The same day, he prayed with the faithful at the Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Baclaran, where, in 1973, he offered Mass during a brief stopover when he was still Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow. Later, St. John Paul II met Asian bishops at Villa San Miguel and professionals and the working class at Araneta Coliseum.
On February 18, 1981, the poor people of Tondo welcomed anew a visiting pope. “My dear friends of Tondo,” the Holy Father said, “be faithful to Christ, and joyfully embrace his Gospel of salvation. Do not be tempted by ideologies that preach only material values or purely temporal ideals, which separate political, social and economic development from the things of the spirit, and in which happiness is sought apart from Christ. The road towards your total liberation is not the way of violence, class struggle or hate; it is the way of love, brotherhood and peaceful solidarity.”
Pope John Paul II on his way to Luneta for the first beatification rites outside the Vatican
In Cebu City, St. John Paul II met with priests and seminarians and celebrated the Eucharist with families in this cradle of Christianity in the Philippines. In Davao, he met Christians and Muslims. In Bacolod and Legazpi, he spoke about the dignity of human work before the sacadas and farmers, respectively. He met lepers from the Tala leprosarium and Vietnamese refugees in Morong. A day before leaving for Guam, the Holy Father offered the Holy Mass for indigenous tribes in Baguio.
The Mandaue-Opon Bridge leading to Cebu City is filled with people seeking to catch a glimpse of John Paul II
The Marcos regime, which had lifted martial law on paper ahead of the Pope’s arrival, tried to use the visit to legitimize authoritarian rule. But St. John Paul II stood up to the dictatorship and admonished national leaders over human rights violations. “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 said in remarks at Malacañang Palace.
The crowd at the Tondo, Manila slum visited by Pope John Paul II
The Holy Father, however, had only words of tribute to the Filipino people, his loving hosts:
“The Philippine nation is deserving of particular honor since, from the beginning of its Christianization, from the moment that Magellan planted the Cross in Cebu four hundred and sixty years ago… all through the centuries, its people have remained true to the Christian faith.”
Pope John Paul II | January 12-16, 1995
The Pope in Dialogue with Young People
Pope now saint John Paul II during his visit to the Royal Pontifical University of Santo Tomas.
St. John Paul II returned to Manila in 1995 to be with young people from all corners of the world in celebration of the 10th World Youth Day. It was another 20,000-mile pilgrimage to strengthen, in the words of an eminent papal biographer, “solidarity with the world’s most populous and least Christian continent.” Little did anyone expect that the closing Eucharist of the week-long festivities in the metropolis would produce not just the biggest papal crowd but the “largest gathering in human history.” It was in Rizal Park, where the Holy Father reechoed his universal call to holiness and issued his memorable exhortation on the World Youth Day theme: “As the Father sent me, so am I sending you.”
Five million, many of them young people, were in attendance. “Christ! Christ! Christ! I speak without abbreviation,” said St. John Paul II in his homily for the solemn Eucharistic celebration on January 15, 1995. “When Christ becomes all of this for you, the world and the Church will have solid reasons for hope for the future.”
5 million youths gathered at Luneta Park in Manila, Philippines, an event recognized as the largest crowd ever by the Guinness World Records.
“Be not afraid!” were Christ’s words that the Polish Pontiff used to preach the message of hope during the Cold War. At the International Youth Forum in the Pontifical University of Santo Tomas, the Holy Father used the same words to rally young people to answer God’s call. “Enormous tasks lie before the youth of the world; especially before the Catholic youth of the Philippines, of Asia and the Far East, on the eve of the Third Millennium,” he said. “The largest mission land of the worldis in need of workers, and the Church constantly prays the Lord of the harvest to send them, to send us, to send you.”
St. John Paul II arrives at NAIA on Jan. 12, 1995
The Holy Father again marked an important milestone in the life of the Philippine Church—the quadricentennial of the elevation of the See of Manila to an Archdiocese and the erection of three suffragans: the Dioceses of Cebu, Nueva Segovia, and Caceres. “The establishment of a Metropolitan Church in the Philippines bore witness to the fact that the work of the first missionaries had borne abundant fruit … In this part of the world it is the Philippines which enjoys the greatest wealth of ecclesial life,” the Pope said in his homily on January 14, 1995 at the Philippine International Convention Center.
The boat at the center of Quirino Grandstand, from the World Youth Day logo, which evokes the calling of the first apostles
St. John Paul II took the opportunity to reach out to the rest of Asia, as he had done in 1981, and Pope Paul VI before him in 1970 through the facilities of Radio Veritas, which celebrated its 25th year in 1995. Of particular concern were Chinese Catholics, to whom he sent a special message of affection. At San Carlos Seminary, the Holy Father reminded the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences to foster their mission ad gentes, to “make disciples of all nations” in a manner that is not an imposition but rather, one that involves “love and respect for those being evangelized.”
The massive crowd for World Youth Day 1995
“I take with me a thousand images of the Filipino people,” St. John Paul II said as he left Manila for Papua New Guinea on January 16, 1995. “I know your desire for greater justice and a better life for yourselves and your children … May God help you to follow the path you have already begun: towards a continuing development that preserves and promotes the true values of your Filipino culture!”