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VATICAN CITY – Pray for me.
Pope Francis made this appeal to President Aquino yesterday during their private audience here at the center of Roman Catholicism, the faith of more than 80 percent of Filipinos.
Facing reporters after the 45-minute meeting, a visibly moved Aquino was at a loss for words to describe his conversation with the pontiff.
While it was not the first time that the pontiff made the appeal, the leader of the world’s more than 1.2 billion Catholics made an impression on the President.
“It really felt different,” Aquino said. “It’s really hard to explain. He is a very simple man. He greeted me with a smile.”
The Argentine pontiff, who has launched efforts to rid the Vatican of corruption and cleanse the Church amid sex scandals involving the clergy, previously said he expected not to serve long as leader of the Catholic Church.
In recent months there have also been reports, denied by the Vatican, that he was suffering from a serious illness.
“Perhaps what is important is his appeal for us to pray for him, and he addressed that to all the members of our delegation. He repeated that message,” Aquino said.
Aquino, who has had differences with the Catholic Church over social issues such as contraception, said the pope understood the problems of the poor and the oppressed.
“If we are face to face with the pope, we seek his blessing, we ask him to pray for us. But he was the one who asked us to pray for him,” Aquino said.
He said the pope listened to him keenly as he discussed the rehabilitation efforts in Tacloban, the area worst hit by Typhoon Yolanda in 2013. Pope Francis visited Tacloban last January.
Acknowledging that the government and the Church had clashed on some key issues, Aquino said he asked Pope Francis how they can encourage dialogue.
The pontiff responded by encouraging Aquino to read two of his works namely “Laudato Si,” the papal encyclical on the environment, and the apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” or “Joy of the Gospel.”
The Reproductive Health Law, which provides state funding for contraceptives, was passed under Aquino’s watch despite opposition by Church officials, who believe it would encourage abortion and sexual promiscuity.
Aquino also has his own share of critics in the Catholic clergy. In January, the President created a stir among Catholics when, in the presence of the pope, he complained about clergymen critical of him but were silent on the previous administration’s flaws.
Aquino nevertheless stressed that during the private audience, he was more of a Catholic talking to his pope rather than a head of state.
Aquino also invited Pope Francis to visit the Philippines through his Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin. The pope, however, has a busy schedule next year because of the Jubilee Year.
“I told him my countrymen have instructed me to extend the invitation to the Holy Father anytime that he wants. And then, of course, there are so many invitations from around the world. He will have to stay in Rome, especially next year,” Aquino said.
“Well, there might be a few trips next year but there are so many invitations everywhere. We understand that the invitation is open but it was not mentioned that he will visit us,” he added.
Aquino also informed Pope Francis that his apostolic visit to the Philippines last January revitalized the local Church.
“In fact, up to now, the tarpaulins and posters that were done for his visit, a lot of them appear to be in pristine condition. They were being kept by our countrymen on display. They will probably be handed down to the next generation,” the President said.
The private audience was held at the Apostolic Palace at around 10:30 a.m. (5:30 p.m. Philippine time). Aquino gave Pope Francis a Philippine-made bone china tea set made by Filipino designer Ito Kish.
The set is composed of white cups and saucers designed with details of Philippine rural life including the carabao, coconut tree and nipa hut or bahay kubo. The pope was also given a box of fresh Philippine mangoes.
Pope Francis reciprocated by giving Aquino a bronze sculpture. The sculpture has an olive branch holding two halves of a cleft rock with the words: “To seek what unites, to overcome what divides.”
Aquino said the sculpture was a symbol of peace and consensus building.
“I told him we want to include everybody in consensus building and continuous dialogue in trying to merge perhaps different points of view in trying to achieve the same goal,” the President said.
“When he said ‘pray for me,’ I told him: ‘Holy Father, I think in the Philippines even those who are not Catholics pray for you and I’m sure that continually happens,” he added.
No mention of Duterte
Meanwhile, Aquino said the controversy stirred by the recent statement of Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte was not brought up during the meeting with the pope.
“I’m thankful it wasn’t brought up and, to be honest, I did not personally hear what Mayor Duterte said. I just saw what was written in media reports. Maybe I’ll leave it at that.”
After the meeting, Aquino witnessed the unveiling and blessing of the mosaic image of Our Lady of Peñafrancia, the patroness of Bicol. The devotion to the Our Lady of Peñafrancia dates back to about 300 years ago, making it one of the oldest in the Philippines. The feast in honor of the Virgin Mary under the title is held every September in Naga City.
Aquino said Parolin views the Philippines as an example of how to reach out to Muslims and to achieve peace, given that extremism is becoming a worldwide threat.
“I did explain that we don’t have the problem of radicaliza- tion that exists in other parts of the world. I emphasized, for instance, that we never had an incident of suicide bombing,” the President said.
Aquino also mentioned to the pope the government’s peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which he said would address all complaints and feelings of disenfranchisement in Mindanao.