VATICAN CITY — Fostering reconciliation after a bloody civil war, consoling many affected by a catastrophic natural disaster and promoting interreligious dialogue will be some of Pope Francis’ most important tasks when he embarks for Sri Lanka and the Philippines on Monday.
The Holy Father’s seventh and longest apostolic visit outside of Italy will also include the canonization of Sri Lanka’s first saint, three open-air Masses and dining with survivors of a devastating typhoon in the Philippines.
Francis’ apostolic voyage comes exactly 20 years after Pope St. John Paul II made a similar visit to Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Blessed Paul VI also visited both countries in 1970.
The trip, covering tens of thousands of miles over an eight-day period, begins in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo on Monday.
Arriving at 9am, after an 11-hour overnight flight, the Holy Father will deliver the first of 11 discourses and homilies during the week, all of which will be in English, as when he visited South Korea in 2014. The Vatican says he may switch to Italian or Spanish for unscripted remarks.
After meeting with Sri Lanka’s bishops at the apostolic nunciature in the capital (the Pope will not address the episcopate, as he recently met the bishops on their ad limina visit), Francis will transfer to the presidential palace in the afternoon. President-elect Maithripala Sirisena will welcome Pope Francis on his visit to Sri Lanka, as outgoing President Mahinda Rajapaksa has reportedly already left the presidential palace. There will be no papal address at that time.
Rajapaksa, who unexpectedly lost a Jan. 8 presidential election, has promised a “smooth transition of power.” The 69-year-old leader, who is credited with ending the country’s 30-year civil war and who had dominated Sri Lankan politics for a decade, called for an early poll after the papal visit had been confirmed, thereby placing the papal trip in jeopardy.
The Holy See prefers to avoid election periods to minimize political exploitation of the Pope. But after much discussion among officials, and despite the threat of unrest in a closely contested poll, it was decided the visit should go ahead.
In the evening, the Pope will meet interreligious leaders at the Bandaranaike Memorial Conference Hall in Colombo, where he will give an address. Papal spokesman Father Frederico Lombardi said the country is “very religious,” and popes have attributed “great importance” to the meeting in the past.
Buddhists, Hindus, as well as Muslims of Singhalese and Tamil ethnicities, will be present and a Buddhist monk will address the gathering, as Buddhism is the most widely practiced religion in the country.
Canonization of Joseph Vaz
The second of the Pope’s two full days in Sri Lanka will begin with the canonization Mass of Blessed Joseph Vaz. Beatified in 1995 by St. John Paul II, Joseph Vaz was a 17th-century missionary from Goa, India, who went to evangelize the people of the island-nation. The priest is known as the “Apostle of Ceylon,” the name for Sri Lanka until 1972.
The Pope will then transfer by helicopter to pray at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary in Madhu, the most-visited shrine in the country. There, he will underline the importance of reconciliation, following in the face of the civil war between Tamils and Singhalese, much of which took place in the north, where the shrine is located.
The Church played “an important role” in achieving peace, Father Lombardi said, given that Catholics belong to both Tamil and Singhalese ethnicities. Among those present at the ceremony will be Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, archbishop of Colombo. The Holy Father will return to the Sri Lankan capital in the evening.
On the morning of Jan. 15, the Pope will make a brief visit to the chapel of Our Lady of Lanka in Colombo, where he will pray for peace in the country. After a farewell ceremony at the airport, he will depart on a Sri Lankan Airlines plane for the Philippines — the largest Catholic country in Asia.
Arrival in Manila
The six-hour flight will have him arriving at Villamor Air Base in Manila at 6:45pm, where he will attend an official welcoming ceremony. He will not be giving any discourses that day, but may grant an airborne press conference, Father Lombardi said.
On Jan. 16, the Pope is scheduled for an intense schedule: First, he will be welcomed at the presidential palace and visit President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III. Francis will then meet with public authorities and the diplomatic corps in the palace, where he will deliver a discourse.
Soon after, he will celebrate Mass with bishops, priests and religious at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Manila. The cathedral has suffered much tribulation over the years, due to wars and natural disasters, and has been renovated eight times.
After Mass, the Pope will meet with and address families. The Vatican spokesman stressed the importance of the encounter, as it will encompass different testimonies from family groups regarding poverty, migration and physical disabilities. The first to welcome him will be a 100-year-old woman, along with one of her great-grandsons.
Jan. 17 will be devoted to visiting Tacloban, a region devastated by Typhoon Yolanda in 2013 that cost 7,000-8,000 lives and affected 15 million people. More than 100,000 people are expected to greet the Holy Father, who will take a one-hour flight there. He will celebrate Mass next to Tacloban International Airport and then lunch at the archbishop’s palace, with some 30 survivors of the typhoon, each of whom has been “deeply affected” by the disaster, Father Lombardi said.
The Pope will then bless a new center for the poor and homeless, set up after the typhoon and funded by Cor Unum, the Pope’s charitable arm. Later that afternoon, he will meet with priests, religious, seminarians and families of typhoon survivors at the cathedral of Palo, where he will deliver a discourse. He will fly back to Manila afterwards.
On Jan. 18, Francis will have a brief meeting with the country’s religious leaders, followed by a meeting with up to 30,000 young people. Three young people will give testimonies: a formerly homeless girl, a student studying communications at the local university and a volunteer who helped recovery efforts during the typhoon.
The day will end with an open-air Mass at the same location where Pope St. John Paul II celebrated World Youth Day in 1995 and attracted between 4 and 5 million faithful. The Mass will be celebrated on the feast day of Holy Nino (Baby Jesus), a very popular feast in the Philippines.
President Aquino will attend the Holy Father’s farewell ceremonies at the airport in Manila. He is slated to arrive back in Rome at 5:40pm on Jan. 19.
Encyclical ‘Not Imminent’
Father Lombardi said that, during the trip, the Pope will probably address environmental issues, themes that will be included in the Holy Father’s next encyclical.
When asked when the document will be published, the Vatican spokesman said it is “not imminent,” but that it can be expected “before the summer.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.