Pope Francis celebrated an outdoor Mass in Manila in front of millions of rain-soaked Filipinos at the conclusion of his six-day tour of Asia.
Local officials estimated that about six million people attended the Mass at the Rizal Park or lined the streets leading to the venue on Sunday.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the office of the president told him that between six and seven million attended the Mass at Rizal Park and surrounding areas.
“If this is true, and we think it is, this is the largest event in the history of the popes,” he said, adding that Pope John Paul II drew some five million to the same area in 1995.
The 78-year-old pontiff, wearing a transparent yellow poncho over his white cassock, was driven through the ecstatic crowd in a “popemobile” designed after the country’s unique mode of public transport called jeepney, Reuters reported.
He stopped often along the route to kiss children and bless religious statues on the day the Philippines celebrated the feast of the infant Jesus or Santo Nino. The faithful, also wearing ponchos, shrieked in unabashed joy as he passed by.
Many people had waited all night for gates to open at dawn. The gates opened nine hours before the start of the Mass, which lasted nearly three hours.
In his homily, the pope urged Filipinos to shun “social structures which perpetuate poverty, ignorance and corruption,” a theme he stressed when he held talks with President Benigno Aquino on Friday. Aquino attended the Mass.
Francis also took another swipe at the government’s population control efforts, saying the family was under threat from “insidious attacks and programs contrary to all that we hold true and sacred”.
The pope’s trip to the Philippines, where 80 percent of the 100 million population are Roman Catholics, was a highly emotional one, and in many instances, he discarded his prepared speech and spoke in his native Spanish to communicate with the faithful.
Earlier on Sunday, at a youth gathering at a Catholic university in Manila, he was moved by a question posed by a 12-year-old girl who had been abandoned.
“Many children are abandoned by their parents. Many of them became victims and bad things have happened to them, like drug addiction and prostitution. Why does God allow this to happen, even if the children are not at fault? Why is it that only a few people help us?” the girl, Glyzelle Iris Palomar, asked him.
The girl, who was rescued and found shelter in a Church-run community, broke down in tears and could not finish her prepared welcome. The pope hugged her.
“Why do children suffer?” the Argentine Pope said before a crowd of about 30,000 young people on the grounds of the University of Santo Tomas. He said he had no answer.
“I invite each one of you to ask yourselves, ‘Have I learned how to weep … when I see a hungry child, a child on the street who uses drugs, a homeless child, an abandoned child, an abused child, a child that society uses as a slave’?” he said.
Children can be seen living on the streets of the Philippine capital, as they often do in many poor Asian countries, surviving by begging and picking through garbage in vast dumps.
The United Nations says 1.2 million children live on the streets in the Philippines. According to the Child Protection Network Foundation, 35.1 percent of children were living in poverty in 2009, the last year such data was available. Nearly 33 percent of Filipinos live in slums.
On Saturday, he visited Tacloban, one of the cities in central Philippines devastated by super-typhoon Haiyan in November 2013.
He left Manila an hour earlier than scheduled and also cut short his visit to Leyte province because of an approaching storm.
A church volunteer worker, 27-year-old Kristel Padasas, was killed when a piece of scaffolding fell on her during a Mass the pope officiated for the Haiyan victims. The pope took time to visit the victim’s father and offer his condolences.
Later, a plane carrying government officials skidded off the runway at Tacloban airport shortly after the pope’s plane departed back to Manila. No one was injured.
In his homily, the pope told the faithful that he had decided to go to the Philippines after learning of the devastation brought by Haiyan.
“So many of you in Tacloban have lost everything. I don’t know what to say — but the Lord does … He underwent so many of the trials that you do”.
Some 150,000 people, most of them survivors of the typhoon and still struggling to recover, attended the Mass amid driving wind and rain. Many openly wept as he asked them to remain steadfast in their faith.
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