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Archbishop Villegas: Leyte to be ‘the centerpiece’ of Pope Francis’ visit

Pope Francis' visit to Tacloban City and Palo in Leyte will be the "centerpiece" of his five-day visit to the Philippines, Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas said in a forum Monday.

Villegas reminded the public that the Pope's primary reason for coming to the Philippines is "to console" with the survivors of super typhoon Yolanda and the Bohol earthquake, which he said differentiates it from previous papal visits.

"Let us not forget that the primary reason for the papal visit is to console the victims," Villegas said at the Inquirer Conversations forum at the University of Santo Tomas.

"If we have to prioritize, you can take away the Luneta event, you can take away the UST event, but you cannot take away Tacloban and Palo [events]," he added.

The Philippines, which has the third most number of Roman Catholics in the world, has been visited by two pontiffs three times — now-Blessed Paul VI in 1970 and now-Saint John Paul II in 1981 and 1995.

Villegas said unlike Pope Francis' visit to Sri Lanka, where he will lead canonization rites, the pontiff "is not going to be of function" when he comes to the Philippines.

"He's coming here to bring the blessings of God. In his own words, to visit Jesus in the Philippines," he said.

In an interview with the press onboard a papal flight in July 2013, the Pope expressed the "importance" of visiting Asia, and said he had received invitations to Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

It was the onslaught of super typhoon Yolanda, which left over 6,000 dead and thousands more homeless, that urged the Pope to come to the Philippines to extend "mercy and compassion" to the survivors, Church officials said.

In an interview with GMA News Online, Msgr. Bernie Pantin, vicar-general of the Archdiocese of Palo, said the Pope had sent a Vatican representative there late last year, after the typhoon, because "he wanted to come here."

The visit led to the establishment of the Pope Francis Center for the Poor, which is open to orphans, the elderly, and the sick.

The official itinerary for the visit shows that the Pope will spend most of January 17, Saturday, in Leyte. Among the activities there are:

-- a holy Mass at the Tacloban Airport upon his arrival,
-- lunch at Palo with survivors of Typhoon Yolanda and the Bohol earthquake,
-- blessing of the Pope Francis Center for the Poor at the Archdiocese of Palo, and
-- offering his private prayers and lighting a candle at the mass grave behind the Palo Cathedral.

Pope Francis will be in the Philippines from January 15 to 19. —KBK, GMA News