MANILA, Philippines — An estimated 3 million people filled Manila’s main park and surrounding areas for Pope Francis’ final Mass in the Philippines on Sunday, braving a steady rain to hear the pontiff’s message of hope and consolation for the Southeast Asian country’s most downtrodden and destitute.
Francis made a triumphant entry into Manila’s 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 typhoon-hit Tacloban a day earlier.
Organizers had expected as many as 6 million people might turn out, surpassing the 5 million record set by St. John Paul II at the same park in 1995. With two hours to go, the chairman of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, Francis Tolentino, reported 3 million had packed the park and surrounding streets.
But with a steady rain falling, people were seen turning around along one of the main boulevards leading to the park and heading away.
Earlier in the day, Francis drew an estimated 200,000 people to Manila’s Catholic university, where he came close to tears hearing two rescued street children speak of their lives growing up poor and abandoned.
Pope Francis (R) embraces two children, including 12-year-old Glyzelle Palomar (2nd R), during his visit to the University of Santo Tomas in Manila on January 18, 2015. | Getty Images
Francis has dedicated his four-day trip to the Philippines to the poor. He has denounced the corruption that has robbed them of a dignified life, visited with street children and travelled to eastern Tacloban to offer prayers for the survivors of the deadly 2013 Typhoon Haiyan that devastated one of the Philippines’ poorest regions.
Francis ditched his prepared remarks again at Sunday’s university appearance, speaking off the cuff to respond to little Glyzelle Palomar, age 12, who wept as she asked Francis why children suffer so much. She spoke of children who are abandoned by their parents and end up on the streets using drugs or in prostitution, but couldn’t get through her remarks.
“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: Francis’ Mass falls on a major Catholic feast day here, the Santo Nino.
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 is, 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 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 the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.
NICOLE WINFIELD, Associated Press
TERESA CEROJANO, Associated Press
Associated Press writers Oliver Teves and Ken Moritsugu contributed to this report.