POPE Francis celebrated Mass with an estimated six million of singing and cheering Catholics at Luneta Park Sunday, in one of the world’s biggest outpourings of papal devotion.
Rain fell steadily in Manila in the hours before the Mass but the faithful turned out in a joyous mood that defied the gloomy skies.
The 78-year-old pontiff thrilled crowds on his way to the bayside park venue for mass. He travelled along a motorcade route in a “popemobile” styled after the jeepney.
The pontiff, dressed in a plastic yellow disposable poncho, waved and smiled to cheering crowds that were 20-deep. The popemobile stopped repeatedly so he could lean over barriers and kiss babies.
He then arrived to a sea of devoted followers for a Mass expected to last two hours. Authorities said about six million turned out to see the pope celebrate a mass on Sunday, making it a world record crowd for a papal gathering.
“We are devotees of the pope,” Bernie Nacario, 53, said as he stood amid a mass of people with his wife and two young children near Rizal Park ahead of the mass.
“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.”
As groups of friends sang nearby and others burst into spontaneous cheers, Nacario said he was a long-time arthritis sufferer but today his pain had disappeared.
“It is as if the Lord has cured my ailment.”
Organizers said they were preparing for a record-breaking crowd of up to 6 million. Metro Manila Development Authority chairman Francis Tolentino gave an estimate of the crowd size. “We have it a six million.”
Aerial footage showed masses of people surrounding the park and nearby areas.
If the turnout is as big as expected, it would surpass the previous record for a papal gathering of 5 million during a mass by John Paul II at the same venue in 1995.
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 the University of Sto. Tomas.
The pope’s five-day visit to the Philippines, which began on Thursday, followed two days in Sri Lanka.
It 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, where rapturous receptions have cemented the nation’s status as the Church’s Asian role model.
Ahead of the mass, May Dupaya, 41, stood on Sunday afternoon with a black plastic bag to shield her from the rain, after lending her raincoat to her mother.
“I am prepared to get wet for Pope Francis. I’m prepared to get sick for Francis,” Dupaya said as her 18-year-old daughter huddled next to her in a plastic poncho.
Authorities have undertaken 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 police chief Leonardo Espina told reporters.
And not everything has gone according 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, for a planned full day in communities where homes were flattened by monster winds and tsunami-like storm surges.
But, with tropical storm Amang 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 III 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 as he arrived in Tacloban, the capital of Leyte and one of the worst-hit cities.
The Palace described the response to Pope Francis as “super overwhelming” with people lining up along the routes of his motorcade and pouring into venues at which he was expected.
“The Filipino people have truly shown to Pope Francis how much he is loved,” said presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda.
The Mass Sunday not only moved millions of devotees who braved the rain to attend, but also brought families together.
Some devotees who came from as far as northern Luzon and the Bicol region met with family members living in Metro Manila and prayed together during the Mass.
Tearful relatives embraced each other, exchanging words and family photos near tarpaulins with the image of Pope Francis welcoming him.
Many people began to cry tears of joy when they saw the Pope.
Fr. Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, told reporters during a press conference that these devotees were “profoundly moved” by the pope’s presence.
“When we feel something moving us that deeply it’s normal to express it in tears,” he said.
Manila Archbishop Cardinal Antonio Luis Tagle said in the Christian tradition, this was called the gift of tears.
“It’s a gift because it comes when there is a profound experience, especially a deep human experience that also reveals to you something of the divine – and it is so profound and you know you are before it and your body responds to it in a very physical way, and one of those ways is tears,” he said.
While the pope emphasized the importance of family in his speeches, the Catholics for Reproductive Health (C4RH) sent him a letter asking that they be heard.
Luz Frances Chua, C4RH executive director, told the Pope that C4RH is one with the millions of the practicing Catholic faithful wanting to reach out to His Holiness.
But she urged the pope to allow openness and dialogue on sexual and reproductive health.
“The C4RH has been one of the outcasts by virtue of the pastoral letter, Clarificatory Note on Catholics for RH (C4RH), which the CBCP released in May 2011,” the group’s letter read.
Chua said the country’s prelates must not judge the people based on their sexual orientation, status and advocacy.
Some 200 members of the C4RH, including lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders, were among the wave of people at the Quirino Grandstand as early as 6 a.m. to wait for the pope to celebrate Mass at 3 p.m.
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