An aerial view of Rizal Park showing millions of people attending Pope Francis’ final mass in Manila Sunday. Pope Francis will be flying back to Rome January 19 to end the 2nd leg of his apostolic tour in Asia. Photo courtesy of the Philippine Air Force
Pope Francis drew a record six million people as he celebrated mass in the rain-swept Manila Sunday, delivering a powerful message for the poor to a rapturous audience in a triumphant finale to an Asian tour.
Filipinos are famous for practicing a passionate brand of Catholicism and they turned out in force despite the wet weather, determined to see the charismatic 78-year-old pontiff, and in a celebratory mood that defied the gloomy skies.
Francis made an exhilarating entrance to a Manila bayside park for the mass aboard a "popemobile" that was styled after the nation's iconic, flamboyant and much-loved "jeepney" minibus.
Dressed in a plastic yellow poncho, he waved and smiled to wildly cheering crowds, stopping repeatedly so he could lean over barriers and kiss babies, before reaching the sea of believers at Rizal Park.
The Philippines is the Catholic Church's bastion in Asia, with 80 percent of the former Spanish colony followers of the faith, and the pope praised them for their reverence.
"The Philippines is the foremost Catholic country in Asia. This is itself a special gift of God, a blessing," the pontiff told the vast crowd.
"But it is also a vocation. Filipinos are called to be outstanding missionaries of the faith in Asia."
He also spoke out against "poverty, ignorance and corruption", a theme he has drawn on during the five-day visit to the Philippines which opened with a speech in which he lectured the nation's politicians to end "scandalous social inequalities".
About 25 million Filipinos, or one quarter of the population, live on the equivalent of 60 cents a day or less, according to government data.
Youth participants cheer as Pope Francis arrives for a meeting with young people at the University of Santo Tomas, Sunday morning. Huge crowds converged in the oldest Catholic university in Asia for a chance to see the pontiff and listen to his message. Photo by Stefano Rellandini, Reuters
The head of Manila's planning agency said six million turned out to see the pope, surpassing the previous world record for a papal gathering of five million during a mass by John Paul II at the same venue in 1995.
Francis was stunned by the enormous crowd, Archbishop of Manila Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, who has acted as the pontiff's chaperone throughout the trip, told reporters.
"I can not fathom the faith of the simple people," Tagle quoted the pope as saying after the mass was over.
People who attended the event exuded excitement, love and respect.
"We are devotees of the pope," Bernie Nacario, 53, told AFP as he stood amid the crowd with his wife and two young children.
"The pope is an instrument of the Lord and if you are able to communicate with him, it is just like talking to God himself."
Nacario said he was a long-time arthritis sufferer but today his pain had disappeared.
Pope Francis comforts Glyzelle Palomar, after sharing her experience as a former street child, during the youth encounter at the University of Santo Tomas Sunday. Thousands of Catholic faithful, mostly young people attended the celebration at UST. Photo by Stefano Rellandini, Reuters
Before the mass, the pope had an emotional encounter with former street children.
Glyzelle Palomar, a 12-year-old taken in by a church charity, wept as she asked how God could allow children to descend into prostitution and drug addiction.
The pope enfolded her in his arms, and discarded his prepared speech as he reverted to his native Spanish to deliver an impromptu and heartfelt response.
"She is the only one who has put a question for which there is no answer and she wasn't even able to express it in words but in tears," he told those gathered at a Catholic university in Manila.
Pope Francis waves to young participants during a youth encounter at the University of Santo Tomas, Sunday morning. The pontiff challenged the young participants present during the celebration to be concerned with others, particularly the poor. Photo by Basilio H. Sepe, The Varsitarian/ABS-CBN Pool
Philippine authorities undertook one of their biggest-ever security operations to protect the pope, with nearly 40,000 soldiers and police deployed for Sunday's event.
"This is a sea of faith we are dealing with," acting national chief Leonardo Espina said on Sunday before the mass, the pope's last major event before flying back to Rome on Monday.
The pope's tour, which also took him to Sri Lanka, is his second trip to Asia in five months, in a nod to the region's growing importance to the Catholic Church as it faces declining support in Europe and the United States.
It is also the fourth papal visit to the Philippines, and the rapturous reception given to him throughout his stay cemented the nation's status as the Church's Asian role model.
But not everything went to plan.
The pope said the main reason for visiting the Philippines was to meet survivors of Super Typhoon Yolanda, the strongest storm ever recorded on land which claimed more than 7,350 lives in November 2013.
He flew on Saturday morning from Manila to Leyte island, ground zero for the typhoon, and had planned to spend a full day in communities where homes were flattened by monster winds and tsunami-like storm surges.
But, with Tropical Storm Mekkhala descending on the region, he was forced to cut short his visit and fly back to Manila.
"I apologize to you all. I'm sad about this, truly saddened," the pontiff told thousands who had gathered at one church shortly before he raced back to airport.
Just 30 minutes after his flight left, a plane carrying top aides of President Benigno Aquino skidded off the same runway as it was buffeted by strong side winds while trying to take off. No one was seriously injured.
Earlier in the day, the storm's winds tore down scaffolding at the venue where the pope said mass, killing a woman volunteer with the organizing committee.
Still, the crowd of 200,000 typhoon survivors who turned out in heavy rain were overjoyed the pontiff had braved the dangerous weather to see them.
"Long live the pope!" the crowd chanted.