Pope Francis arrives in the Philippines as organisers expect world-record turnout for mass

MANILA  – A sea of nearly a million handphone-toting, screaming, crying and dancing devotees welcomed Pope Francis in the Philippines, as the hugely popular pontiff began his five-day pilgrimage of “compassion and mercy” in this nation of over 80 million Catholics.

President Benigno Aquino and Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle led a contingent of ranking government and church officials, two orphans and a thousand dancers in a festive welcome to the Holy See.

Church bells tolled as the Pope’s plane landed in Manila after a six-hour flight from Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Traffic enforcers estimated that 40,000 well-wishers per kilometre jostled for a glimpse of the most popular human being on the planet along the heavily guarded, 22km route that Francis’ motorcade used.

The 78-year-old Francis travelled standing on the bed of an open-top “popemobile”, from the airport to the Vatican’s diplomatic enclave in Manila’s heartland.

“It feels like 1966, and The Beatles are coming,” said Mr Bert Castronuevo, 66, a public relations veteran who was 18 years old when the most successful rock band in history toured the Philippines.

With his man-of-the-people charm and bold messages on divisive issues such as homosexuality, Francis is often greeted with rock star-intensity wherever he goes.

Mr Floirendo Cacdac, 68, a lay minister, travelled by bus for three hours from Laguna province south of the capital to secure a spot behind a guard railing along a boulevard the papal convoy took.

He said the wait is worth it, even if the payback is just a split-second view of Francis.

“I’m not wealthy. I can’t go to the Vatican, so this is the only chance I’ll ever get to see him in person,” said Mr Cacdac.

The warm welcome registered a “very strong first impression” with Francis, the Vatican’s spokesman, the Reverend Federico Lombardi, said at a news briefing.

“It was very impressive, important and touching,” he said.

The Philippines – bulkhead of Catholicism in Asia – has pulled out all stops in rolling out the red carpet for the leader of the 1.2 billion-strong Catholic world.

Over the past weeks, state affairs have been consumed by preparations for the visit.

Manila will be in lockdown until the Pope heads back to the Vatican on Jan 19.

A five-day national holiday has been declared. Schools, courts, banks, stock markets, government offices and consular services have all been shut down.

Airlines have cancelled flights, including at least three via Singapore, on Thursday and on Jan 19.

President Benigno Aquino is directly overseeing security arrangements, as he raised concerns over potential stampedes, Islamic militants and lone-wolf assailants in a nationally televised address on Jan 12.

Mr Aquino himself led a late-night dry run on Jan 13 along the route the pontiff’s motorcade will take from the airport.Nearly 40,000 soldiers and police have been deployed in the largest-ever peacetime armed mobilisation in the Philippines.

Strict protocols are being implemented around venues where Francis is scheduled to speak.

A 3km “no-fly, no-sail” zone has been declared around the venues.

Flying schools have been instructed to ground their planes, and drone enthusiasts have been sternly warned to leave their toys at home.

An MRT station near where the Pope is staying has been shut.

Those going to all papal events have been instructed to bring raincoats instead of umbrellas, and to stash their belongings inside transparent plastic bags, instead of inside backpacks.

Field hospitals manned by some 8,000 volunteer doctors and Red Cross personnel have been up since Jan 12 around the sprawling Luneta park, where about 6 million are expected to attend Francis’ open-air mass on Jan 18.

With a storm approaching, the local weather bureau has sent a mobile radar system to Tacloban province, where the Pope will visit communities devastated by typhoon Haiyan, which left over 7,000 dead in central Philippines in November 2013.

All these measures are being readied, as the nation anticipates a papal visit that promises to be both passionate and chaotic.

Francis himself has instructed Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle, the head of the Philippine Catholic church, to take down huge tarpaulins bearing his image, emphasising that the visit should not be about him but his messages.That, however, has not stopped followers of a fervent brand of Catholicism here from creating a festive atmosphere bordering on hero worship.

TV networks have dedicated nearly all their news programming to the visit, saturating the public with minutiae like what the Pope will eat, the texture of his vestments, and an Ostrich egg with a leaf painting of St Peter’s Basilica that will be presented to him as the nation’s gift.

Nearly all channels and news websites are running countdowns to the second on the hour Francis will arrive.

A four-minute cartoon about the pontiff’s life went viral on YouTube weeks ago.

Record companies have put out at least two music CDs dedicated to the pontiff, with Cardinal Tagle himself singing one track, and a 39-year-old theologian is starring in a musical about Francis’ life.

The central bank has released a commemorative coin.

Couples are naming their newborns “Francis”.

The Pope will fly to Manila from Sri Lanka, where a million packed a seafront to witness the canonisation of the mainly Buddhist nation’s first saint.

A reporter from the Philippine Daily Inquirer traveling with Francis’ entourage said Vatican officials have told the pontiff just before leaving Colombo: You haven’t seen anything yet. Wait till you get to the Philippines.

rdancel@sph.com.sg