Newspaper article International New York Times

Philippines Opens Arms to Pope Francis ; Visit Comes as Church Struggles with Profound Social Change in Country

Newspaper article International New York Times

Philippines Opens Arms to Pope Francis ; Visit Comes as Church Struggles with Profound Social Change in Country

Article excerpt

Pope Francis' arrival marked the first papal visit in 20 years to the Philippines, where the Catholic Church is struggling with profound social and political change.

Pope Francis was greeted by cheering throngs when he arrived in the deeply Catholic Philippines on Thursday evening, the first papal visit in 20 years to a country whose church is struggling with profound social changes and a decline in political power.

The visit comes on the heels of a major loss for the church, the implementation of a reproductive health bill to provide free contraception to women, a measure the church had steadfastly opposed for years. The law, now being carried out after it was upheld by the Supreme Court last year, was supported by a wide majority of Catholics.

But Francis' message of reform and inclusiveness resonates with many Catholics here, whose attitudes toward politics and social issues have evolved faster than those of their often conservative clergy, analysts say.

"There were four million people gathered when Pope John Paul II came to Manila in 1995," said the Rev. Xavier C. Alpasa, a priest and professor at Ateneo de Manila, a Jesuit university in Manila. "That record will be broken because of the deep spirituality of Filipino Catholics, but also because of Pope Francis himself. People are so enamored by his inclusive statements, his revolutionary ideas, his compassion."

The 1995 visit was the largest papal gathering ever. The authorities were bracing for as many as eight million people to attend a papal Mass in Manila on Sunday.

The birth control battle was an inflection point in the history of a country where 81 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, and as recently as 30 years ago, the church was credited with mobilizing crucial support for the overthrow of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

The Philippines, home to 7 percent of the world's Catholics according to the Pew Research Center, is also a pillar of the church in Asia. More than half the Catholics in Asia call the Philippines home.

While support for the church appears as strong as ever -- the 81 percent figure has held steady in the national census -- what that means is shifting.

Weekly church attendance has declined from 66 percent in 1991 to 41 percent today, according to a survey by the group Social Weather Stations. This compares with weekly attendance rates of more than 70 percent for Muslims and other Christians in the Philippines.

Church officials are struggling to serve the spiritual needs of one of Asia's youngest populations, with many parishioners looking to social media as much as to Sunday sermons for spiritual guidance.

Many Filipinos, while steadfast Catholics, find themselves at odds with their clergy on key social issues and the political role of the church. The Philippines is one of the few countries in the world with no legal divorce, largely because of church opposition. Abortion and same-sex marriage are illegal.

Francis has not changed church doctrine on these issues but has come across as more liberal than his predecessors. His statement in 2013 that the Catholic Church had become too "obsessed" with homosexuality, abortion and contraception was welcomed by many Catholics. He has called for greater acceptance of gay and divorced Catholics by the church.

The Filipino church is changing too.

Nancy Felipe, a lecturer at Philippine Women's University, pointed out that while the church hierarchy vigorously opposed the reproductive health law in Congress, it took a more lenient approach toward the faithful who supported the measure. …

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