by Gjergji Evangjeli
On January 12, Pope Francis arrived in Sri Lanka’s national airport, kicking off a weeklong visit to Sri Lanka and the Philippines. The Holy Father met with religious leaders in the majority Buddhist country, but the most memorable event was the canonization of St. Joseph Vaz, a 17th century priest who, on January 14, because the first recognized Sri Lankan saint.
Speaking during St. Joseph Vaz’ Canonization Mass in Colombo, the Pope remarked, “His undivided love for God opened him to love for his neighbor; he ministered to those in need, whoever and
wherever they were. His example continues to inspire the Church in Sri Lanka today. She gladly and generously serves all members of society.”
The Pope also visited the Benedict XVI Cultural Institute in Bolawalana, where he blessed the Chapel of Our Lady of Lanka. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo launched the project to create the Institute in 2011 to collaborate with the Sri Lankan agencies to rebuild the small Asian nation after 30 years of civil war. The institute will have departments in interreligious dialogue as well as foreign languages and higher studies focusing on theology, philosophy, economics, and business.
The government of Sri Lanka pardoned 612 prisoners who had been convicted of minor offenses and were over the age of 75 in honor of the Pontiff’s visit. Cardinal Ranjith remarked that the smooth transition of regimes, occurring only a few days before the Pope’s arrival, was surprising and that the Pontiff played a role in it. “The widespread acceptance of the Pope – regardless of religion – was clearly visible in the thousands of citizens who packed the streets and cheered for him as he made his way along the 23 kilometer route from the airport,” the Cardinal remarked, according to CNA.
Pope Francis then departed for Manila, where his first stop was celebrating Mass with the clergy, religious, and seminarians at Manila’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, where he pointed out the “powerful missionary potential” of the Filipino faithful.
One of the most heart-warming moments of his visit to the Philippines was the homily for the Mass celebrated near the Tacloban airport on the island of Lyete, which was devastated by supertyphoon Haiyan in December 2013. The Holy Father set aside his prepared speech ad addressed the people gathered, many of whom lost family members to Haiyan, from the heart. “We have the security of knowing that we are not going to weaken in our faith, because Jesus has been there before us… In his passion, he assumed all our pain,” he said, “So many of you have lost everything… I don’t know what to say to you. But the Lord does know what to say to you. Some of you have lost part of your families. All I can do is keep silent.”
On January 18, the Pope’s final public Mass at Rizal Park in Manila drew crowds of about 6 to 7 million, a new papal record. The homily touched on the importance of Christians’ identity as God’s children and called for a rallying of the family against, “insidious attacks and programs contrary to all that we hold true and sacred, all that is most beautiful and noble in our culture.”
The Pope’s final stop before departing for the Vatican was a farewell ceremony where about 400 abandoned children from various welfare centers performed songs to bid him on the morning of January 19. The Pontiff was escorted to his plane by President Benigno Aquino, whom Pope Francis thanked as he boarded the plane, “You must have worked some extra hours,” he remarked, leaving the Philippines with a light tone.