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.”
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.”