Popemania peaks in Catholic Philippines ahead of Pope's arrival

Excitement is at a fever pitch in the Philippines, as the nation of over 80 million Catholics awaits the arrival on Thursday afternoon of Pope Francis.

Thousands have been taking positions since dawn along spruced-up roads to catch a glimpse of the open-top "popemobile".

"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, the 78-year-old pontiff 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 and walked another hour to secure a spot behind a guard railing along a boulevard festooned with yellow banners, billboards, streamers and tarpaulins with a smiling image of a grandfatherly pope.

He said the wait is worth it, even if the payback is just a split-second view of Pope 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 Philippines - bulkhead of Catholicism in Asia where four in five are Catholics - 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 next Monday (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 nexy Monday.

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

Mr Aquino himself led a late-night dry run the day after 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 Pope 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. A subway station near where the Pope is staying has been shut.

Field hospitals manned by some 8,000 volunteer doctors and Red Cross personnel have been set up around the sprawling Luneta park, where about 6 million are expected to attend Pope Francis' open-air mass on Sunday (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.

Pope 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 details 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 TV channels and news websites are running countdowns to the second on the hour Pope 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, and 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 travelling with Pope 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