Overwhelming welcome for Pope Francis foreseen in Philippines

Father Gaston departing to Philippines Catholic News Agency Credit Alan Holdren CNA 11415 Father Gregory Gaston departing for the Philippines Jan. 15. | Alan Holdren / CNA.

Pope Francis can expect a warm and enthusiastic welcome in the Philippines, say two natives of the country who work in media.

"People are starting to line up from the airport to the apostolic nunciature," Father Gregory Gaston, rector of Rome's Pontifical Collegio Filippino, told CNA Jan. 15.

"I am sure that the Pope will be happy when he meets the people because they have really been preparing for quite some time," he said at Sri Lanka's Colombo International Airport before the Pope departed for Manila.

Father Gaston, who also serves as a correspondent for the Philippine Catholic radio station Radyo Veritas, said several Philippines TV channels have had short segments about the Pope's upcoming trip for quite some time now.

Starting Jan. 15, Pope Francis begins his five-day visit to the Philippines, a country where 86 percent of its 98.4 million people identify as Catholic.

"I am sure this will be a great occasion of grace, not only for people gathering together, but really of grace being showered by the Lord upon us," the priest said.

Lynda Jumilla Abalos, a journalist with the Philippines' ABS CBN News, said the Pope is a very popular man in the country.

"I hope the Pope will see how much the Filipino Catholics love him, and will see how overwhelmingly popular he is in the Philippines," she said.

The Philippines' people love the Pope so much, in fact, that Father Gaston said their excitement is probably the biggest security concern of the trip at this point.

"…people here really love the Pope, and they might just (overwhelm) him or stand too close to him, and make the security people nervous," he said, laughing.

As many as 6 million people are expected to attend Sunday Mass with Pope Francis in Manila.

Signs of an eager welcome were evident on social media Thursday morning, when the phrase "Welcome to the Philippines Pope Francis" was trending on Twitter worldwide and in the Philippines.

Often called the "Pope of the poor," the Holy Father's care and concern for the disadvantaged has truly resonated with many people in the Philippines, particularly the victims of the disastrous Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Typhoon Yolanda). The December 2013 storm killed thousands of people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.

"The words of the Pope the morning after the typhoon struck got to the people right away, and they know his concern for the poor and the victims," Abalos said. "The middle class admire him for his determination to introduce reforms in the Church, and the elite have always looked up to the leaders of the Catholic Church… every social class is looking forward to the visit."

Father Gaston said he is also personally looking forward to going home.

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"This is a very great blessing for me," he said. "It's always good to go home, it's been a while because I'm based in Rome. So this is an opportunity for me to visit my home as well as accompany the Pope."

There is a tropical storm that may hit the Philippines during Pope Francis' visit, but Father Gaston said the Holy Father is prepared for the possibility of rain.

The Philippines visit is the second leg of Pope Francis' latest trip. He departed Sri Lanka on Thursday morning after a three-day visit.

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