Pope Francis has called on Filipinos to reject the corruption that has plagued the nation for decades and urged them to instead work to end its “scandalous” poverty.
The remarkably enthusiastic reception on Francis’ first full day in the Philippines, Asia’s largest Catholic nation, came despite an unprecedented level of security that prevented the Pope from diving into the crowds as he typically likes to do.
Rather, Francis waved from the car window or popemobile as his motorcade drove through boulevards lined with well-wishers held behind police barricades.
Corruption has plagued the Philippines since the 20-year rule of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who along with his shoe-loving wife and cronies were suspected of stealing billions before being ousted from power in 1986.
The problem has festered amid a culture of impunity among powerful politicians and their allies, weak law enforcement and a notoriously slow justice system. But Benigno Aquino won the presidency by a wide margin in 2010 on promises to rid the nation of corruption and poverty. Since then, congress has begun investigating top politicians for corruption and three senators have been detained.
In a speech to President Aquino and other officials, Francis said that more than ever, political leaders must be “outstanding for honesty, integrity and commitment to the common good”. He said they must hear the cries of the poor and address the “glaring and indeed scandalous social inequalities” in society.
He challenged Filipinos “at all levels of society, to reject every form of corruption which diverts resources from the poor, and to make concerted efforts to ensure the inclusion of every man and woman and child in the life of the community”.
In his speech, Mr Aquino said clergy themselves were part of the problem. While the Catholic Church played a fundamental role in supporting opposition to Marcos, some priests “suddenly became silent” when abuses continued under Marcos’ successor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, he said. Arroyo is currently detained on corruption and election sabotage charges.
One congressional investigation revealed that some bishops had personally requested support from Arroyo, including one who asked for an SUV as a birthday gift purportedly to allow him to visit his flock.
Mr Aquino has waged a campaign against poverty, an issue close to the Pope’s heart, but has also clashed with local Catholic leaders over a reproductive health bill that promoted use of artificial birth control. Congress, which is dominated by Mr Aquino’s allies, passed the bill in 2012.
Francis took the local church to task himself during a Mass for the clergy in Manila’s cathedral, urging priests to reject materialism and embrace lives of poverty themselves as Jesus did.
“Only by becoming poor ourselves, by stripping away our complacency, will we be able to identify with the least of our brothers and sisters,” he said. “We are called to be ambassadors of Christ.”
Francis’ message is sure to resonate in a country where, according to government statistics, nearly a quarter of the Philippines’ 100 million people live on just over 66p a day.
“For him, the poorer you are, the more he will reach out to you,” said Christopher Ladios, 40, a traffic enforcer at a junction near the presidential palace where Francis passed by.
“Corruption is the number one news in the Philippines these days, so it was a good message. For small workers like us, it would mean we can get what is due us and it will not be stolen.”
Francis is due to meet Filipino families later and tomorrow he travels to the central Philippines to comfort survivors of the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan, which left more than 7,300 dead and missing and destroyed entire villages.
The government has declared national holidays during the Pope’s visit, which runs until Monday, and the crowds responded by turning out in droves to welcome him. Authorities estimated that between 700,000 to one million people turned out along his motorcade route in from the airport.
Mobile phone reception was jammed, a huge police presence guarded him and streets leading to Francis’ motorcade route were blocked as the Pope travelled around town in his open-sided popemobile and a simple four-door Volkswagen.
It remains to be seen if he will chafe at the intense security provided by Philippine authorities, who appeared to leave nothing to chance.
They have good reason to go overboard after Pope Paul VI was slightly wounded in an assassination attempt during his visit in 1970 and St John Paul II was the target of militants whose plot was uncovered days before his 1995 arrival.