JPII in 1981: walking a tightrope | Inquirer Opinion
Human Face

JPII in 1981: walking a tightrope

Before and during Pope John Paul II’s second visit to the Philippines in 1995, the Inquirer ran many articles on him. One of the pieces I had to write was about his first visit in 1981. Good thing I still had my 1981 notes!

With JPII’s canonization (also Pope John XXIII’s) set on April 27, I visit the 1981 scenes once again through that article. Here is a much shorter version:


Everything was at fever pitch by the time JPII went down the Alitalia jet and kissed Philippine soil. For the next six days (Feb. 17-22, 1981) of his pastoral visit, he became the darling of millions of cheering Filipinos. JPII, without really trying, had power. If only he would use it to cast down and castigate tyrants.

Everywhere he went there was a throng, sometimes millions strong, that rushed to get a glimpse of him. There were oceans of people praying, shrieking, fainting, waving, sobbing. That was perhaps the most rousing welcome ever given a visiting foreign dignitary, unparalleled in the Philippines’ history. The welcome was typical Filipino hospitality, Filipino affection gone wild and free.


Many wanted to cash in—dictator and street peddler, conservative and radical, sinner and saint, the Left and the Right.

The Left-leaning People’s Assembly on the Pope’s Arrival (Papa) grabbed the opportunity to make an exposé of the evils that Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship stood for. At the mammoth gathering at the Quezon Memorial Circle, activists suddenly unfurled a big streamer on behalf of political prisoners. This caught the eye of the Pope.

The Marcos regime clumsily did all it could to put itself in the good graces of JPII and the foreign press. Marcos was perhaps apprehensive that the Pope might throw some invectives in his direction.

A month before the Pope’s arrival, Marcos announced the “fake lifting” of martial law. Marcos tried his best to get JPII on his side and spoke of a revolution that was pounding at the gates. Instead, Marcos got a stern warning from the visitor: “Any apparent conflict between the needs of security and those of the fundamental rights of citizens must be resolved according to the basic principle, always maintained by the Church, that the social organization exists only to preserve man and protect his dignity.”

Unabashed and uncontrite, Imelda Marcos put on a big show in Malacañang and dogged the Pope in the places he visited.

In Tondo where the Pope visited the urban poor, press coverage was banned. The same was done when Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, the Vatican’s secretary of state, visited the Bilibid Prisons in Muntinlupa. Political prisoners had earlier clamored for a visit from JPII himself, but it was Casaroli who was sent to say Mass for the inmates. He did not seek out the political prisoners, who had been transferred there from their regular coops in Bicutan (in keeping with Marcos’ claim that “there are no political prisoners in the Philippines”).

Behind the accolade lavished by the Philippine Church on the Pope was a Church polarized both horizontally and vertically as far as politics were concerned. A good number of clerics and religious had struck an alliance with Marxists. Liberation theology had gained adherents in the Church, causing unease among the archconservatives.


For the radicals in the Church, the Pope had a mouthful: “You are priests and religious. You are not social or political leaders.” This was something Marcos was expected to use against the politicized clergy.

Only an athletic Pope could have survived the backbreaking schedule. In Metro Manila he met with religious women and men as well as bishops. He presided at the Mass for Peace in Quezon City and spent time with the youth at the University of Santo Tomas campus. He met with the Chinese communities and with the diplomatic corps.

In Cebu, cradle of Christianity in the Philippines, the people laid out an even bigger welcome in terms of crowd size. JPII flew to Mindanao to feel the Muslim South. In Bacolod he lashed out at the profligate hacenderos. He rendezvoused with lay leaders in Iloilo and with farmers in Legazpi. He took time out to be with the indigenous people in Baguio and the Vietnamese political refugees in Morong, Bataan. He had a private meeting with lepers in Quezon City. He graced the media awards ceremonies and delivered a statement for the media. (He handed me my rock trophy and put his hands on my head.)

A high point was the beatification ceremony at the Luneta park of 16 martyrs who were killed in Japan in the 17th century, among them the Filipino Lorenzo Ruiz (who would be canonized in 1987).

Securing JPII was a nightmare. In charge was Bishop Paul Marcinkus, the burly American with the mean elbows who would later become the controversial head of the Vatican Bank.

The Left kept a distance from the maddening crowd, neither cheering nor jeering. The leftists wore a wry smile. It was clear to them that JPII had captured and wowed millions.

The Pope did not want to divide. The impatient activists wanted a showdown. “Just one word of strong condemnation and the Pope would have had all of us sharply divided,” said a pope watcher. “That would have been healthy.”

JPII didn’t do it. While he veered slightly in favor of the oppressed and showed signs of repudiating the high and mighty, he did not throw a bombshell at any side. Those who thought that he would bless a corrupt regime did not see it happen. It seemed evident to him that there could be no reconciliation. He was walking a tightrope.

Fourteen years later, in 1995, Pope John Paul II, beloved pilgrim, came to visit again. The rousing welcome was something never seen on this earth.

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TAGS: canonization, Human Face, john paul ii, Ma. Ceres P. Doyo, opinion
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