A papal visit is the biggest holiday for a Filipino Catholic. Filipinos consider popes to be both a rock star and a holy man. Any event they preside over – be it a procession or a mass – is a unique experience for most of us.
For me, it’s an experience that I’ve already had four times in the Philippines; I was nine when Pope Paul VI came to Manila in 1970 and 52 when Pope Francis visited in 2015 and I feel blessed to witness a fifth.
But this papal visit – the fourth since the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1984, 1992 and 2002 – brings none of the festive pomp that Filipinos are used to. The atmosphere around Pope Francis’ visit is kept somber and subdued out of respect for the survivors and families of victims of Canada’s residential schools.
According to Lito Velasco, editor of the Alberta Filipino Journal and a former seminarian in the Philippines, it is important that the essence of the papal visit be carefully observed.
“I am delighted to know that the Pope is visiting Edmonton for the purpose of reconciliation,” he added.
While all papal visits are a cause for celebration, the arrival of Pope Francis holds great appeal for Filipinos in Canada, who admire him for being something of a nonconformist in a conservative church.
He was elected on March 13, 2013, an unlikely choice to succeed Pope Benedict XVI who had resigned a month earlier.
In other words, the pope was an underdog who emerged victorious, a story Filipinos love.
“This pope is special,” says Ida Lucila, founder and executive director of the Philippine Arts Council of Edmonton and chair of the Edmonton Philippine International Center initiative. “The reason he was (elected) was because of his progressive views. He’s the right pope.”
Like me, some Filipinos in Canada have had at least one meeting with a pope back home. For those who did not have one, this visit is special.
“It’s like bringing in a Hollywood star. Most of us haven’t given up on our faith despite the secular influences around us,” says Marjorie Newman, who runs MCN Canada Immigration Consulting in Edmonton.
“Being Catholic is like being at home. We know the prayers and songs, the sense of belonging and familiarity,” she adds.
“It’s a place of our culture.”
Rooted in their faith
Pope Francis’ visit to Edmonton reinforces this faith and sense of belonging among Filipinos.
This is especially important for workers, students and immigrants who may feel disconnected when trying to put down roots here.
When the challenges of settling or assimilating become too great, Filipinos turn to their faith to see them through.
The Church is our sanctuary, the Pope our leader.
While the Catholic Church remains largely conservative, Pope Francis has taken positions that are radical by traditional Catholic standards – his advocacy on climate change, his criticism of the free market economy and his call for the Church to be more tolerant and accepting of members of the LGBT community. .
But as traditional as many Filipino Catholics remain, the reforms take nothing away from our faith in the Church and our devotion to Pope Francis. He continues to maintain rock star status, which helps keep the faith strong and unwavering among us.
We are, after all, suckers for celebrities. And no one is greater than the pope himself.
Some of us still remember his visit to the Philippines in 2015 where he visited places in Leyte province to be with the victims of a powerful typhoon.
The image of Pope Francis celebrating Mass in the midst of a downpour is still etched in the minds of many Filipinos: the pontiff in a simple yellow poncho and soaked to the skin.
The Vicar of Christ and Successor of the Prince of the Apostles was also a simple priest who wanted to be with the people, despite the passage of a typhoon.
This papal visit brings a sense of comfort and strengthens the faith of Filipinos in the Church.
Filipinos look to a leader who embodies relatable qualities.
This is why Francis and the now Saint John Paul II are two of the most beloved pontiffs of Filipinos: they symbolize the “good side” of the Catholic Church, even in the midst of all its controversies, including the tragedy of residential schools.
Papal visits can be deeply personal events for Filipinos. Such occasions nurture faith and remind us of our perceived “special status” as Catholics from the only Catholic country in Southeast Asia.
That was the descriptive definition of the Philippines back then, when life was much simpler. As Ida Lucila notes, “This papal visit takes you back.”
Filipinos seek spiritual comfort and solace wherever they are. And that’s what a papal visit does.