MANILA, Philippines (AP) – A record 6 million people poured into Manila’s rain-soaked streets and its biggest park Sunday as Pope Francis ended his Asian pilgrimage with an appeal for Filipinos to protect their young from sin and vice so they can instead become missionaries of the faith.
The crowd estimate included people who attended the pope’s final Mass in Rizal Park and surrounding areas, and lined his motorcade route, said the chairman of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, Francis Tolentino.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the Vatican had received the figure officially from local authorities and that it was a record, surpassing the 5 million who turned out for St. John Paul II’s final Mass in the same park in 1995.
Francis marked an important feast day honoring the infant Jesus by dedicating the final homily of his weeklong Asian trip, which began in Sri Lanka, to children. It was a reflection of the importance that the Vatican places on Asia as the future of the church since it’s one of the few places where Catholic numbers are growing – and on the Philippines as the largest Catholic nation in the region.
“We need to see each child as a gift to be welcomed, cherished and protected,” Francis said in his homily. “And we need to care for our young people, not allowing them to be robbed of hope and condemned to a life on the streets.”
Francis made a triumphant entry into Rizal Park riding on a popemobile based on the design of a jeepney, the modified U.S. Army World War II jeep that is a common means of public transport here. He wore the same cheap, plastic yellow rain poncho handed out to the masses during his visit to the typhoon-hit eastern city of Tacloban a day earlier.
The crowd – a sea of humanity in colorful rain ponchos spread out across the 60 hectares (148 acres) of parkland and boulevards surrounding it – erupted in shrieks of joy when he drove by, a reflection of the incredible resonance Francis’ message about caring for society’s youngest and most marginal has had in a country where about a quarter of its 100 million people lives in poverty.
Francis has dedicated his four-day trip to the Philippines to the poor and marginal. He denounced the corruption that has robbed them of a dignified life, visited with street children and traveled to Tacloban to offer prayers for survivors of the deadly 2013 Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated one of the Philippines’ poorest regions.
Earlier Sunday, Francis drew a huge crowd to Manila’s Catholic university, where he came close to tears himself hearing two rescued street children speak of their lives growing up poor and abandoned.
The pope ditched his prepared remarks and spoke off the cuff in his native Spanish to respond to 12-year-old Glyzelle Palomar, who wept as she asked Francis why children suffer so much. Palomar, a former street child rescued by a church-run foundation, told him of children who are abandoned or neglected by their parents and end up on the streets using drugs or in prostitution.
“Why is God allowing something like this to happen, even to innocent children?” Palomar said through tears. “And why are there so few who are helping us?”
A visibly moved Francis said he had no answer. “Only when we are able to cry are we able to come close to responding to your question,” he said.
“Those on the margins cry. Those who have fallen by the wayside cry. Those who are discarded cry,” he said. “But those who are living a life that is more or less without need, we don’t know how to cry.”
And he added: “There are some realities that you can only see through eyes that have been cleansed by tears.”
A steady rain from the same tropical storm that forced Francis to cut short his visit to Tacloban on Saturday fell on the crowd, but it didn’t seem to dampen spirits of Filipinos who streamed into the capital for Francis’ final day.
“I am not satisfied just seeing him on TV,” said Rosalinda Kho, a devout Catholic who arrived before dawn outside Rizal Park with her daughter, Rosana, to score a place for the Mass. “This is a once in a lifetime chance to see him in the flesh, even from afar.”
By the time the gates opened, the roads leading to the park were mostly closed. Many people camped out on tarpaulins on the ground where they had spent the night, surrounded by bags of food. Some pilgrims carried images of the infant Jesus to mark the feast day.
In his homily, Francis urged the crowd to protect their children from sin, alcohol and gambling, saying the devil “distracts us with the promise of ephemeral pleasures, superficial pastimes.”
“Filipinos are called to be outstanding missionaries of the faith in Asia,” he said.
Bracing for huge crowds, the government put out a public service announcement warning the elderly, pregnant women and children against coming to the event. They urged the crowd to carry their things in transparent plastic bags since they’d be easier to inspect. An appeal to use raincoats rather than umbrellas went unheeded.
Earlier, officials had suggested Mass-goers consider using adult diapers since access to public toilets would be limited. As it was, traffic cops were given diapers since they couldn’t leave their posts, though authorities backed off an initial order to use them.
Rommel Monton, a 28-year-old call center agent, said he was struck by Francis’ willingness to practice what he preaches, particularly as it concerns the poor.
“He doesn’t want to be treated as someone special. Look at his vehicles, they are not bullet-proof: He wanted them to be open so that he can feel he is close to the people,” he said. “How will you be able to protect your followers if you are not with them, if you are afraid to show yourself, to stand behind them or stand before them?”
Francis sought to stand with one Filipino family struck by tragedy during his visit: He spent 20 minutes Sunday meeting with the father of Kristel Padasas, a volunteer with Catholic Relief Services, who died Saturday in Tacloban when scaffolding fell on her. Witnesses said a sudden gust of wind toppled the structure, which had served as a platform for a large loudspeaker during the Mass.
The father was overwhelmed by the loss but was “consoled thinking that she had helped prepare the meeting of the people with the pope,” said Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.