MARY GRACE COSTA WRITES – The Sony Pictures hacking scandal and the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France have fueled a global dialogue on free speech. The Holy Father, Pope Francis, addressed the subject during an impromptu press conference on a Sri Lankan aircraft en route to Manila on January 15.

The Pope condemned the acts of terror in Paris and upheld the fundamental right to free speech. However, he qualified his statement by urging people to refrain from using this right to provoke others, especially where religion is concerned. Pope Francis further illuminated his point by joking that a man may insult his mother, if he wants to, but should expect a punch in the face for it.

The pontiff arrived at the Villamor Air Base in Manila hours later, where he was welcomed by Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, other statesmen and officials, and the roaring jubilation of thousands of Filipinos who crowded the airport and the streets leading up to it for a chance to see the “Santo Papa”.

With 76 million Catholics (about 81% of the population) living in the Philippines, the island nation has the largest Catholic population in Asia and third largest in the world. Pope Francis’ popularity in the Philippines proved itself twice over at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception the next day, where the Pope celebrated mass, and officials estimated that a record-breaking six million people attended.

Despite the Filipinos’ enthusiastic reception of the Holy Father, Pope Francis and the Vatican insist that the focus remains on the millions of Filipinos in the Visaya region who were devastated by Tyhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) in November 2013, whom the Pope has especially come to visit, and on the faithful community of the Philippines altogether.