The upcoming papal visit to the Archdiocese of Palo is a very historical moment in the life of the Roman Catholic Church in Eastern Visayas. While the primary purpose of the pope’s visit is to meet with the communities affected by the typhoon, it is important to underscore that his visit will occur after a number of very significant historical milestones in the history of the local Church of Palo. In 2012, the archdiocese received a new archbishop in the person of His Grace, Most Reverend John F. Du, DD. In 2013, the local Church of Palo celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of its canonical erection as a diocese. However, in November of the same year, the strongest typhoon in recorded human history practically flattened parts of the archdiocese, resulting in a massive loss of life and grave damage to property. In view of these events, Pope Francis comes as a universal pastor, like a shepherd tending to his flock. He comes with a message of “mercy and compassion” to a Christian community that despite having experienced difficult challenges and trials remain strong in the faith, fervent in hope and united in love.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines rightly puts it in the Pastoral Letter, “A Nation of Mercy and Compassion” issued in preparation for the Papal Visit of His Holiness Pope Francis, “His visit carries a message of pastoral love, mercy and compassion from a pope with the scent of a Good Shepherd (cf. John 10)”. The Catholic bishops of the Philippines further explained that the underlying spirit of the papal visit is the theme of “mercy and compassion” recalling how Christ Jesus himself “seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. (cf. Matthew 9:36)”. “Hence, he is bringing to us “the joy of the gospel” enshrined in his Apostolic Exhortation, EvangeliiGaudium.” The bishops of the Philippines have reminded all Filipinos that “when the Pope comes, he will bring with him the message of the mercy and compassion of God.” In this period of preparation, the Filipino bishops have invited the faithful of the Philippines to respond to the call of becoming a people of mercy and compassion so that, when Pope Francis “meets us, may he see in us a people touched by the mercy of God, living out the compassion of God, a people truly rich in mercy and compassion and grateful to those who have shown mercy to us especially after various calamities hit our country.”
The apostolic journey of Pope Francis will bring him to the Eastern Visayas region, particularly the city of Tacloban and the municipality of Palo, Leyte. The Eastern Visayas region has a rich Catholic heritage. The first Catholic Mass celebrated in the Philippines was held in the island of Limasawa located at the southernmost tip of mainland Leyte. Tacloban City is the regional capital of Eastern Visayas and is one the hardest hit by typhoon Haiyan. Tacloban is also known for its strong devotion to the Santo Niño who was proclaimed as the heavenly patron of Leyte by the late Bishop of Palo, Most Reverend TimoteoPacis, CM, DD. The municipality of Palo, which became the seat of the archdiocese in 1937, is one of the oldest towns in the country; being one of the first missions founded when the Jesuits arrived in Leyte more than four hundred years ago.
Secondary to its spiritual significance is the fact that the pope’s visit will also have a secular and political significance. Aside from being the universal pastor of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, being the sovereign of the Holy See and the State of Vatican City, is also a head of state in his own right. Thus his apostolic journey is not limited to the Catholic faithful of the archdiocese of Palo but also to all the people of Eastern Visayas of whatever creed and religion, especially those affected by the recent natural disaster events.