Pope Francis: Philippines' 500 years of Christianity can inspire more good

Pope Francis Philippines address 2 Catholic News Agency screenshot CNA 11514 Pope Francis addresses Philippines offiicals and diplomats at the Presidential Palace in Manila Jan. 16.

Pope Francis praised Philippines Catholics' strong faith and challenged them to continue to let the Christian message bear fruit, noting the upcoming 500th anniversary of Christianity's arrival in Philippines.

"It is my hope that this important anniversary will point to its continuing fruitfulness and its potential to inspire a society worthy of the goodness, dignity and aspirations of the Filipino people," he said Jan. 16.

Pope Francis travelled to the Philippines Jan. 15 after spending three days in Sri Lanka as part of his second Asian pilgrimage as pope. Catholic influence is strong in the Philippines, where 86 percent of its 98.4 million people identify as Catholic.

Philippines President Benigno Aquino, in office since 2010, met with Pope Francis for about an hour before the Pope's public remarks to a large crowd of diplomats, public authorities and others gathered at the Presidential Palace in Manila.

The Holy Father said he admired the virtues of "heroic strength, faith and resilience" that Filipinos displayed in the aftermath of the disastrous Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Typhoon Yolanda. The storm killed thousands of people and left hundreds of thousands homeless in December 2013.

"Those virtues, rooted not least in the hope and solidarity instilled by Christian faith, gave rise to an outpouring of goodness and generosity, especially on the part of so many of the young," he said. "At great sacrifice, they gave of their time and resources, creating networks of mutual help and working for the common good."

Pope Francis encouraged the people to extend their care of the poor, so prominent after the storm, into their social structures as well, especially as the Bishops of the Philippines have declared 2015 "The Year of the Poor."

"I hope that this prophetic summons will challenge everyone, at all levels of society, to reject every form of corruption which diverts resources from the poor, and to make concerted efforts to ensure the inclusion of every man and woman and child in the life of the community," he said.

The solidarity and hard worked poured into rebuilding efforts should also be used to build a society respectful of authentic human values, Pope Francis continued.

"As many voices in your nation have pointed out, it is now, more than ever, necessary that political leaders be outstanding for honesty, integrity and commitment to the common good," he said. "In this way they will help preserve the rich human and natural resources with which God has blessed this country."

The Catholic Church in the Philippines is very politically and socially active and played a key role in the peaceful 1986 ouster of dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

The Church was also an active opponent of President Aquino's advocacy of a controversial "reproductive health" bill, which passed in 2012 despite heavy Catholic opposition. The legislation mandated government-sanctioned sex education for adults, middle school and high school students, as well as a population control program that includes fully subsidized contraceptives under government health insurance.

Last year the Supreme Court of the Philippines struck down portions of the bill including provisions allowing minors access to birth control without parental consent and requirements that infringed on the religious freedom of institutions and individuals that objected to providing information about contraceptives.

While Pope Francis did not address the legislation directly, he stressed the importance of the family's role in passing on Christian values and renewing society.

"We know how difficult it is for our democracies today to preserve and defend such basic human values as respect for the inviolable dignity of each human person, respect for the rights of conscience and religious freedom, and respect for the inalienable right to life, beginning with that of the unborn and extending to that of the elderly and infirm," he said.

President Aquino addressed the crowd before Pope Francis, noting the Catholic Church's history in the Philippines and its shift from being an ally of a colonial government to a social presence that challenges the "status quo."

"The Gospel challenges each member of the Church to go beyond almsgiving and mere charity and be concerned with injustice in temporal matters," President Aquino said.

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While the president claimed he had been the object of some excessive criticism from Catholic clergy, he also voiced his appreciation and respect for Pope Francis and his advocacy "on behalf of the oppressed and marginalized."

Pope Francis, following his prepared remarks, praised President Aquino and the country of the Philippines for "fostering understanding and cooperation among the countries of Asia." He encouraged the country to continue to use its strong religious heritage as a force for the common good.

"May the deepest spiritual values of the Filipino people continue to find expression in your efforts to provide your fellow citizens with an integral human development."

The Vatican has announced that Pope Francis will give a present to President Aquino: facsimile of a medieval nautical atlas from the Vatican Library. The atlas' maps show the world as it was known to Europeans in the 16th century.

Christianity first arrived in the Philippines in 1521 through a Spanish expedition led by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan.

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