The Philippines has the third-most Catholics of any country in the world (behind Brazil and Mexico, with the United States fourth), and is the largest of two nations in Asia (along with East Timor) whose populations are predominantly Catholic. More than 80 percent of the population of more than 107 million Filipinos are Catholic.
The islands were colonized by the Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries, and through long processes of educating local populations and accommodating traditional practices, the Catholic faith spread, often through waves of resistance and acceptance. Major Catholic religious orders, including Franciscans, Jesuits, Dominicans and Augustinian Recollects began missionary work in the late 1500s, and today, in addition to these orders, many more are at work.
Filipino Catholics show a strong devotion to the Virgin Mary, establishing many local images and devotional practices, and there are dozens of Marian pilgrimage sites throughout the country. Images of the Blessed Mother often reflect Spanish influence and are highly ornate, such as the image of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary of La Naval de Manila. In addition, many Catholic movements are active, including the Neocatechumenal Way, and several groups were born out of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, such as El Shaddai, Couples for Christ and the Assumption Prayer Group.
In his visit Jan. 15-19, Pope Francis will show his closeness to those who are suffering, which has endeared him to people around the world during his pontificate. Last October, a deadly earthquake struck the country, killing more than 200 people and injuring nearly 1,000. In November, a deadly typhoon, Yolanda, struck the country, killing more than 6,000 people, and more recently, on July 17, another typhoon, Rammasun, killed at least 94 people and left hundreds displaced.
“I think one of the purposes of the visit of the Holy Father is to come close to the people who suffered from the recent typhoon and the earthquake,” Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle said in a report by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines.
Speaking of Pope Francis’ visit while recovery efforts are still ongoing, Philippine Postmaster Maria De la Cruz told Catholic News Agency, “Our country has gone through a lot over the past months. In fact, the reconstruction is not going to be easy ... but I really think the hope of having the pope there will give [people] so much inspiration as they try to move on with their lives, because so many people have died; so many families have suffered.”
The Church has come to play a major role in Philippine society. Although separation of church and state was officially implemented during the period of sovereignty of the United States (1898-1946), many Catholic holy days are also celebrated as national holidays. The Spanish custom of celebrating fiestas on saints’ feast days is common, and the president declared a three-day mourning period following St. John Paul II’s death in April 2005. The country also issued special postage stamps honoring Pope Sts. John Paul II and John XXIII on the occasion of their canonizations in April.
In 1986, then-archbishop of Manila, Jaime Cardinal Sin, made an appeal via radio for people to peacefully oppose the regime of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, starting a movement that became known as the People Power Revolution. More than 1 million people took to the streets in peace, praying the Rosary and singing while surrounding the police and military headquarters, successfully driving out Marcos, who fled to Hawaii. Cardinal Sin again intervened in politics in 2001, supporting a movement that led to the resignation of president Joseph Estrada amidst accusations of corruption.
The Church has also been active in applying the principles of Catholic social teaching to local issues in which the common good is threatened. For example, the Church has supported indigenous people against mining corporations who damage the natural environment in their regions.
On his way to the Philippines in January, Pope Francis also plans to visit Sri Lanka, an island nation located just off the southeastern coast of India. There, from Jan. 12-15, he will encounter a situation vastly different than those in either the Philippines or South Korea. Political tensions stemming both from a 26-year civil war (1983-2009) and from continuing strife among ethnic and religious groups still persist. Nevertheless, since the end of the war, Sri Lanka has had one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. The country gained independence from Great Britain in 1948 and is the oldest democracy in South Asia.
In a speech to the bishops of Sri Lanka during their ad limina visit to Rome in May, Pope Francis said, “After many years of fighting and bloodshed, the war in your country has finally ended. Indeed a new dawn of hope has arisen as people now look to rebuild their lives and their communities ... In response to this, you rightly note ... that much work needs to be done to promote reconciliation, to respect the human rights of all the people and to overcome the ethnic tensions that remain.”
Like the Philippines, Sri Lanka has also suffered from major natural disasters, including a tsunami in 2004 that killed more than 35,000 people, and typhoons and floods more recently, including deadly floods this year which killed at least 20 people and displaced more than 27,000. During his visit, Pope Francis plans to draw close to those who have suffered from disasters or violence and encourage the Church in its work to help the country heal and find a political solution to the ongoing tensions among various groups.
The pope’s decision to visit a country facing such difficulties indicates that he is not afraid to jump into challenging situations.
One of the immediate challenges still facing the Church is the care of refugees, which numbered 300,000 at the end of the war. As Bishop Thomas Savundranayagam of Jaffna, the capital city of the Northern Province, said during his ad limina visit, “People are traumatized from having lived so much violence, seen killings, death. Today, we work hard for reconciliation, accompanying people to overcome this phase and to have faith in God who is Providence.”
Pope Francis praised the work the Church has already done in disaster relief and post-war reconciliation and rebuilding, as well as in education, health care and outreach to the poor.
Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city, has also stressed the importance of preserving “the diversity of the different ethnic and religious groups and foster[ing] unity in that diversity,” he said in a June news release. A rally on July 19 in Jaffna denounced the government’s treatment of Tamil people in the north. Suresh Premachandran, a lawmaker of the Tamil National Alliance, pointed out that there are 150,000 soldiers deployed in the north — an area of 1 million people — which in his view, “clearly points to an ongoing militarization of the area,” he told the website AsiaNews.
In recent weeks, the country’s defense ministry has restricted activist groups and nongovernmental organizations from holding press conferences, workshops and training courses for journalists. This has led to protests by human rights activists and Christian religious leaders, who claim the government is violating the constitution. According to Father Reid Shelton Fernando, a former archdiocesan coordinator of the country’s Christian Workers Movement, “preventing people from gathering and participating in peaceful events will not prevent the truth from being heard. Sacred Scripture says that one day the truth will [come] out. Till then, according to our faith, we pray to our God to lead us to a peaceful society.”
John Lindblom studies in the World Religions and World Church doctoral program at the University of Notre Dame.