The favored university: Why all popes visiting PH stop by UST

Saint Pope John Paul II visiting the University of Santo in 1995.
(Photo courtesy of University of Santo Tomas / Palace Museum and Library PH Flickr) (Flickr)

There’s a reason why the University of the Santo Tomas (UST) is a must-visit for any visiting popes, including Pope Francis’ closely-watched pastoral and state visit on January 15-19.

In 1902, Pope Leo XIII made the Dominican-run school a pontifical university, making it under the supervision of the Pope. This distinction makes UST function as an educational institution with "a special mission of spreading the Gospel and promoting the teachings of the Catholic Church,” the papal visit committee explained.

The university’s administrator, called a rector, is also appointed by the Vatican.

"It is [the pope’s] duty and pleasure to visit this university not only to see how it’s doing but also to inspire and encourage its students, faculty, and staff in their evangelization efforts,” the committee added.

Pope Francis will meet with the youth and religious leaders on January 18 at the UST.

Aside from being pontifical, the 404-year-old university is also known as the Catholic University of the Philippines, a title given by Pope Pius XII in 1947.

To date, the current location of UST in Espana, Manila has seen three papal visits—by Pope Blessed Paul VI in 1970 and Pope St. John Paul II in 1981 and 1995.

Under Vatican’s watchful eye

Being the oldest existing institution of higher learning in Asia and the largest of Catholic university in the world housed in one campus, the UST usually seeks Vatican’s approval, especially for major decisions that concern the university.

For instance, it cancelled one major development, but approved another one when university officials sought the Holy See’s clearance in recent years.

In 2007, the Vatican cancelled a P3-billion project to build a 19-story medical facility and redevelop the UST Hospital separate from the university. This after Dominican Master General had found the multi-billion project too big and illegal, citing Canon Law.

The Vatican, however, gave its blessing when UST asked its permission for the construction of its P800-million sports complex in 2009.

In 2011, during its 400th year celebration, the university invited the then sitting Pope Benedict XV, but sent a special envoy and gave a video message instead.